Dialogue in Historical Fiction
To create my own version of historical dialogue, one that is as true as possible to the period without sacrificing believability is the challenge I face in every one of my Anglo-Saxon novels. Trying to reproduce the way people actually spoke in a given historical period is impossible. That is as true for a novel set in the early medieval period as it is for any other century, with the possible exception of the twentieth century, which someone of my age can easily reproduce.
Whilst it’s obvious that the writer must strive for as much authenticity as possible in the dialogue, it’s less obvious how to go about it. There are clearly some restrictions. Only a poor author would attempt to introduce modern Western slang into a story set, say, in the eighth century.
My approach is to use modern everyday language in historical dialogue whilst avoiding anachronisms and glaring modern expressions. The avoidance off the former can be tricky; it’s not just a question of knowing when coffee was introduced into Europe, but also a question of weights and measures. Even time is tricky to convey—no digital watches in the seventh century! I’ve been known to explain a brief passage of time in terms of heartbeats. In my first novel The Purple Thread, I referred to an eighth-century sundial on a church wall. Its gnomon was no more than a stick in a hole, but the shadow cast marked the canonical hours so familiar to the monks and nuns, who marked Prime, Nones and vespers among other dservicesw ith the chiming of bells. Longer periods can reference the position of the sun in the sky, the length of shadows etc. small measurements could have been in barleycorns set end-to-end. Luckily, charters refer to land measurements and they can help achieve authenticity.
But back to dialogue: to contract or not? Personally, I tend towards contractions in informal speech. Why not? Jane Austen didn’t (sic!) in her novels whereas Charles Dickens did in Great Expectations. Just as in a modern novel, speech patterns can identify the social status of a character. A ceorl is hardly going to speak with the same inflection as an ealdorman.
So, what about vocabulary? My choice of era means I’m not in the slightest tempted by forsooths, mayhaps and perchances (fortunately!) but I can provide the illusion of historical authenticity by careful dosing of some contemporary words. These may be references to coinage, such as sceattas, or the aforementioned weights and measures, also weapons like the seax. The use of names also works, but I confess to irritation when a reviewer criticises me for using difficult names “I couldn’t get past the difficult names,” is a sentiment I’ve read once or twice. Come on, Deormund, Begiloc and Cynethryth aren’t so difficult to get your head around, especially if their story grabs you.
One concession I have made to my readership is to abandon my early tendency to give places their contemporary names. So now you will find Ipswich instead of Gippeswic. I can see that my earlier choice might have made it heavy going for readers. So, not to lose out on my sprinkling of authenticity, sometimes I’ll refer to a place and write that Ipswich was known to the locals as Gippeswic. In the end, it’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability.
Then, what about the great modern trend towards political correctness? That leaves me seething. An editor once changed oarsmen into rowers because oarsmen was not inclusive enough. I’m not sure how many shield-maidens were rowing down the Trent to Gainsborough in the tenth century, but I’ll bet the Vikings didn’t give a damn about political correctness! I’m quite happy to let my historical characters espouse views that today might be considered controversial. But I made a conscious effort in my novel Wyrd of the Wolf to make my female main character worthy of admiration by my female readership. Reviews seem to indicate that I managed that successfully. Some of that was achieved in her conversations with her father, maid, and husband. Again, as a member of the Saxon nobility, she had to have a certain language style.
I hope that with the foregoing, I’m imparting how a little can go a long way. I would tend to avoid inserting authenticisms(to coin a word) in every paragraph, but to use them as occasional hints.
The Vikings were also fond of word combinations known as kennings, like sea-steed for ship or bear-hearted for brave, so I even invented some of my own.
Quite apart from the pleasure of dipping into figurative language, I’d suggest that a skilful metaphor or simile deliberately fashioned with awareness of epoch can also go some way to helping set the tone of a novel, also in dialogue.
I would like to conclude by saying that twenty Anglo-Saxon novels published do not make me an expert in writing dialogue in historical fiction. The views expressed here are strictly personal. I just hope that you found them interesting or, if I’ve been convincing, even helpful. Thanks for reading this far.
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