No, this is not an exclusively girly post. Boys, you are safe to read on.
I called this “period speak” because that’s my nickname for the type of dialogue I use in my book, dialogue that comes out of writing a period piece. Also, this was inspired by an involved Twitter conversation I had with my cousin, ilovetoread09, who tweeted that she was confused by a review on her medieval-set fanfiction, complimenting the language. To quote my cousin: “All I did was not use contractions.”
Which made me think about the dialogue in my story, set in Georgian England. A few people have remarked that the dialogue sounds authentic, which is so gratifying because I would hate for my characters to sound like me.
I once wrote a story–to date, the only bit of creative writing I’ve shown my parents–where the characters lived in 1930 and 1940s Kentucky. (Why Kentucky, I don’t know). My dad noted that the characters sounded the way I do–which is to say very New York, complete with wonky grammar. Yikes. At least I resisted sticking the random Yiddish loan words peculiar to New York in. Ya shmuck.
These are just some thoughts on writing effective period-speak.
1) Let’s Not Go Full Shakespeare
Shakespeare is a genius, yes, and seems like an authentic source of dialogue if you’re writing about Elizabethan England. But his words are peppered with “forsooth” and “prithee” and “Zounds!,” which may be true to life but read awkwardly (and kind of silly) to 21st century readers. Also, with the evolution of the English language, many of the meanings of the words Shakespeare used have completely changed, which is why Sparknotes writes all those Shakespeare guides for us. Keep in mind that the dialogue you write should have a flavor of the time period, with some archaic words here and there, but not so much that your reader needs a Shakespearean scholar to decode it. I would also limit the “thees” and “thous.”It gets tiresome to read.
2) What language are they actually speaking?
This isn’t a problem for me, thank goodness–my characters speak English. But remember that if you’re writing a story set in Ireland in the Middle Ages, then your characters would actually be speaking Gaelic. Remember that before a certain period, the English nobility spoke Norman French. Even if you are writing your story in English, keep your characters’ actual language and, if you can, their accents in mind. Writing with the accent in mind helps with rhythm and writing with the language in mind helps with word choice and syntax.
3) He Speaks Like a Cockney. Why?
This is a convention used in a lot of period movies. Take the recent Les Mis movie, par example. Notice how the peasants speak differently from the barricade boys. Gavroche sings with a pronounced Cockney accent. The barricade boys are students and so speak more clearly. Ignoring that they should, in real life, all be singing in French, the different English accents are a shortcut to Western audiences on social class. In the past, the differences in speech between the classes was wide. Different classes simply spoke differently, dependent on education and, of course, locality. Make sure you reflect that, not in phonetic dialogue, but in word choices and sentence structure. Shakespeare wrote groundlings and royalty and they did not speak alike.
4) No Contractions
For some reason, people seem to think the lack of contractions makes the dialogue seem more period-appropriate. I read a romance novel once where the characters did not use contractions at all. It was noticeable and awkward. People in olden times used contractions–just not always ones we use today. “Shan’t” for “shall not,” “mayn’t” for “may not,” “daren’t” for “dare not,” “‘Tis” instead of “it is,” are a few period speak contractions.
5) Sentences Like This
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” That’s the first line of Pride and Prejudice. What about this sentence makes it of its time, the late eighteenth century? Is it the structure? Is it the content, the message imparted? We use those words today–but maybe not in that order. Read fiction written in your time, if you can, or at least fiction written about your time period. Figure out the syntax of ye olden times and then make it more accessible. And don’t go off on tangents about nunneries and the French Revolution and Waterloo and the history of the toilet or whatever, if it’s not relevant to your story. Nineteenth century authors got away with that kind of thing because people back then did not have the Internet. For realz.
So, what say you, readers? Are there any particular “rules” (they be guidelines!) for dialogue in your particular genre? How authentic do you like your historical fiction dialogue to be?