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