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Friday, October 15, 2010

BOOK CLUB FRIDAY -- GUEST AUTHOR SUZANNE ADAIR

Our guest author today is Suzanne Adair who writes a mystery/suspense series set during the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War. Suzanne’s first book, Paper Woman, won the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award. Camp Follower was a finalist for both the Daphne du Maurier Award and the Sir Walter Raleigh Award. Suzanne will be giving away a copy of Camp Follower to one lucky person who posts a comment this week. The winner has the option of receiving the book as a trade paperback (U.S. deliveries only) or eBook format. For more information about Suzanne visit her website and blog. -- AP

They Said What? Crafting Dialogue in Historical Mystery and Suspense
Like guest author Mike Manno (6 August 2010), I don't think of myself as a "crafter." The gene for knitting, crocheting, sewing, weaving, glass staining, and leatherworking must have missed its ride on my DNA. However, I am a character-smith, as Mike is. Especially where the dialogue of those characters is concerned.

As an author of historical fiction, I must deal with a special challenge that writers of contemporary fiction don't face. Only within the most recent century of human history have we preserved recordings of speech. An author who writes fiction set in that time period can capture dialogue accurately. However the rest of us must take liberties and make assumptions when crafting our characters' conversations. Here's a peek at how we do it.

Some writers simulate dialogue by duplicating the way people wrote their personal correspondence, such as letters and journals. But linguistics experts agree that humans don't speak the way they write. For example, a writer who elects to have characters from the time of King James I speak the way they wrote might have them talk in big, windy phrases filled with "thees" and "thous." Their speech would be lush with alien terms. Familiar words would be spelled in bizarre, inconsistent ways. The result could kill most readers' interest in the story by slowing the pace. And since many people of King James's time were illiterate, the writer would only represent the expression of educated people.

Obstacles like these convince other writers to embrace the opposite philosophy about constructing verbal communication for historical fiction. They avoid the snarl of "thees" and "thous" by inserting modern speech, complete with slang, in their characters' mouths. They operate under the assumption that the dialogue will be so familiar to readers that they'll glide over it. In practice, however, this approach can jolt readers out of the story. Let's face it, when you're reading historical fiction, you want to be immersed in the exotic world of a story set in the past. Even if you don't have a degree in history, you know that a couple of Regency rakes prowling the London brothels wouldn't call each other "bro."

Many historical fiction writers, including myself, adopt a sort of middle ground. They use dialogue patterns that are mostly modern, but they avoid modern slang and anachronisms. They also incorporate period slang and terms in a manner that readers can understand meanings from context. The idea here is to avoid having the pace stall while conveying the flavor of what conversation from a past era might have been like. Achieving this balance is tricky. We're equipped with a vocabulary suited for the 21st century. To successfully craft dialogue from this middle ground, writers must develop an internal detector that flags anachronisms and 21st-century slang. They must also enlist a team of early readers to help them do the flagging. Access to a dictionary that shows when words entered the English language is essential.

I was curious what style of dialogue readers actually preferred, so I started a discussion about it over the summer among readers on LibraryThing. (Many thanks to all of you who participated!) Most who responded preferred the middle ground. "Too much reliance on antiquated ways of speaking makes it hard or annoying to read, but slang and words that are clearly modern take me out of the book," said one reader. Another observed: "If the author is trying too hard to sound period, it just sounds contrived to me."

These folks also volunteered insights into what makes conversations among historical characters resonate as authentic. While writers might believe that regional dialect contributes to the period ambiance, readers say no, that heavy use of dialect distracts them from the novel's flow. Also, writers who devote research time to understanding a culture well enough to craft believable insults and jokes usually produce believable period dialogue.

And readers enjoy conversations that sound "timeless." Here we aren't just talking about dialogue that's suitable for a specific historical period, but dialogue that's crafted well enough to be understood a hundred years from now, without a slang dictionary. That's a tall order for a dialogue craftsmith who's writing fiction set in any era.

What historical fiction author have you read who crafts timeless dialogue? What's your reaction to the use of regional dialect, modern slang, or antiquated speech patterns in historical fiction?

Thanks for such an informative post, Suzanne! Remember readers, Suzanne will be offering either a trade paperback or e-book version of Camp Follower to one of you who posts a comment this week. So let’s hear from you! -- AP

29 comments:

Carol-Lynn Rossel said...

Ever read the original Bre'r Rabbit stories by Joel Chandler Harris -- not the cleaned up ones? Take a peek and gag at how horrid a hunk of regional speech can be. Same thing will happen with modern slang. It'll be out of date in less than a decade and plonk that book right in the time period you're writing it in. So will anachronisms, except they'll take the reader out of the book and make her want to throw it against a wall. Ask me how I know this.

Suzanne Adair said...

Welcome Carol. I've run into blocks of regional speech in novels, and for me it has the effect of grinding the pace to a halt as I try to decipher what's being said. Have you thrown a book against the wall because of this? :-)

Carol in Maryland said...

I think the middle path is definitely the way to go. Dialect (which is what I assume you mean by "regional speech) can be difficult as well as offensive in some cases. However, selected regional words and turns of phrase can add to depth of characterization and setting.

Suzanne said...

Hi Carol in Maryland! I agree. Little bits of regional dialect can work if it's clear from the context what is meant, and the dialect isn't offensive. But those big dialect dumps are just as effective at stalling the pace as dumping in pages of historical detail.

Janet said...

I never thought how difficult it would be to translate regional speech into readable speech without loosing the flavor. I wonder if it is easier these days since regional dialects are less and less as we become "one world."

jrlindermuth said...

I'll cast my vote for the middle ground, too. Abuse of dialect is distracting and confusing. Bernard Cornwell is a writer who is good at getting dialogue right. And I think Hillary Mantel did a good job in Wolf Hall.

Suzanne said...

Janet, I think regional dialects are alive and well. When I moved from South Florida to Atlanta, GA in the late 80s, I had a lot of trouble understanding the speech. It wasn't just the Southern accent. It was the dialect. I'm in Raleigh, NC now, and if I go to the NC mountains, there's *another* dialect that I have to decipher.

Vicki Lane does an excellent job of working in the mountain dialect for the characters in her books without losing pace. But this is sooo hard for a writer to pull off well.

Suzanne Adair said...

John, thanks for joining us. I agree with you on Bernard Cornwell's use of dialogue. And I'll have to check out Hillary Mantel.

C.K.Crigger said...

Here's another voting to take the middle ground. In my westerns I use just enough well-documented slang to set the stage, and use fewer contractions. However, since I write what I call "Northwesterns" I can't use Texas slang. Whole different animal. I also liked Cornwell's dialogue in his Napoleanic saga.

Suzanne Adair said...

C.K., good for you, taking the middle ground and sticking to just the well-documented slang. With Westerns (and Northwesterns), it's way too tempting to wallow in dialect that becomes incomprehensible.

Marni said...

I have a friend who is doing a medieval series; when he was reading an excerpt during my Writers Read group, we pointed out what he'd missed: we doubted in those times anyone would have 'dissed' someone!
By the way, I'm reading Tana French's "Faithful Place" and she does a grand job of indicating the Irish accents of her characters through word choice and syntax~

Suzanne Adair said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marni. "Dissed" in a medieval setting would definitely have thrown me out of the story, even if it was just in the narrative. Good call.

KK Brees said...

Suzanne did a great post for us on Clio's Children (clioschildren.blogspot.com) She's definitely got a way with words. Great post!

Anonymous said...

Middle of the road is my choice.

I also agree that Bernard Cornwell books have it right & they are superb historical stories. That was my husband's favorite author & I read many of them too.

Helen Kiker

Suzanne Adair said...

Karen, thanks for dropping by, and thanks for the kudos!

Suzanne Adair said...

Helen, I agree. Cornwell is excellent with pace and dialogue. And after hearing his keynote at the HNS conference in 2007, I'm pretty sure he wishes that he looked like Sean Bean (Sharpe). :-)

Susan Schreyer said...

Thank you for the insight into the crafting of dialog, Suzanne! I've read your books and LOVED them, thought your dialog was terrific, but I confess not once did I stop and think about how you pulled it off. It just sounded so right for the time, yet comprehensible. No speed bumps, no problems in understanding, yet also no feeling of being "out of the period." You're a master at this, that much is obvious!

Suzanne Adair said...

Thanks, Susan. But I didn't do it all myself. I had help from wonderful early readers and editors who told me when something sounded too modern. I listened to them. I also listened to myself. Amazing what awkward wording and anachronisms you can catch by reading a manuscript aloud.

jeff7salter said...

Suzanne,
Enjoyed reading your post. In my first three novel ms., set in present-day small town Kentucky, I've struggled with accurately presenting dialog which sounds authentic ... without putting a strain on the reader's ability to comprehend. If a reader has to sound out my spellings to get the feel of that phrasing, then I've slowed down the piece too much. So, I strive for a compromise where "less (dialect) is more." ha.
To one of your comments above about stilted written text being used as dialog --- I watched a Civil War mini-series in which the principal characters spoke in that very precise and stilted manner (of formal writing)... and I found it unbelievable.
Of course (being a life-long Southerner), sometimes the fake Southern accents turn me off as well. But that's only in the movies.
Jeff
P.S. I'd love to win your book.

Suzanne Adair said...

Hi Jeff, my suggestion is to tell your early readers specifically to let you know where the dialogue doesn't sound right, doesn't flow, and sounds forced. They should also tell you if they have to struggle to figure out what the characters are saying. That way, you know where you have more work do do.

And yes, Southern accents in movies are often wretched!

Mary K. from L.A. said...

Susan Schreyer said... "I confess not once did I stop and think about how you pulled [the natural sounding dialogue] off."

And isn't that the way it should be! (Well said, Susan!) When you can read a historical and be swept back in time without even noticing the little things like dialogue that put you there, that is the mark of good writing!

I confess I haven't read anything of yours, Suzanne, but now I've put you on my ATBR (Authors To Be Read) list. You're in good company: Susanne Alleyn (French Revolution), Sharon Kay Penman (medieval Wales and England), C.J. Sansom (Tudor England), Bernard Cornwell (pretty much everywhen, it seems), among others.

I recently read a historical mystery set in ancient Rome (Roman Games by Bruce Macbain) that employed what I thought was a neat trick: much of the swearing was in Latin, yet somehow it was crystal clear what was being said.

Suzanne Adair said...

Mary, "When you can read a historical and be swept back in time without even noticing the little things like dialogue that put you there, that is the mark of good writing!" YES! That's the case with *all* writing, not just historicals. The object of crafting the story is to transport your reader seamlessly into the fictional world.

Thanks for mentioning ROMAN GAMES by Bruce Macbain. I'll check that one out. I love the idea of swearing in Latin, and it being understood by the context.

And I'm honored to be placed on your ATBR list.

Suzanne Adair said...

Lois, thanks for the opportunity to be your guest blogger. We've had a fun discussion!

Susanne Alleyn said...

"The middle ground" is definitely the way to go. Period dialogue gets even trickier when you're writing dialogue that is supposedly in a language other than English. My characters are speaking 18th-century French, but readers are reading what I hope is, yes, "timeless," clean, modern English, perhaps a little less choppy than contemporary dialogue, without any dated expressions that would jolt readers out of the story. I try to keep to words, especially slang words, that would have existed in 18th-century English (without seeming too blatantly period); therefore a character can say "he's just a kid" because "kid," or its variants, has been around for centuries.

Fortunately for me, I was an actor with pretentions to playwriting before I became a novelist, so the "actor's ear" for speakable/readable dialogue helps a lot. And in plays, the dialogue always had to come first, and be consciously crafted. Fiction writers still learning their craft could do worse than take some acting classes (not the b.s. "getting in touch with yourself" improv kind, but actual scene study, where you'll learn just why and how a classic scene and its dialogue work, and how to interpret them, and carry over that knowledge to your own work).

Suzanne Adair said...

Susanne, thanks so much for contributing to the discussion. I've read the first book of your series. You practice what you preach. :-)

That's excellent advice you've given fiction writers who want to learn more about dialogue. Taking an acting class shows a student how dialogue must be pared down to deliver the most message with the fewest words.

jenny milchman said...

This is such a fine line in a book--how to get it to sound authentic without overwhelming the reader. I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Suzanne Adair said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jenny. Writers of historicals are particularly tempted to make their characters say too much of the wrong thing, such as dialect. My guideline for historical detail is that I add it on a need-to-know basis. A version of this guideline could be applied to historical dialogue and dialect.

shirley said...

An awkward dialect can spoil a book, but I've never given much thought to the work it takes to do it right. When the reader doesn't notice it is when it is done right.

Suzanne Adair said...

Exactly, Shirley. To the reader, dialogue should look effortless and move smoothly, especially dialect.