Professional book editor in the UK advises on how to write accurate dialogue in your historical novel, always making your historical characters sound authentic.
Languages evolve every year; new words emerge, and old words are forgotten.
Literature dates itself by the vocabulary it uses. When reading books set in a different era, we’re transported to that time through the conversations spoken and the words used.
Modern historical fiction and non-fiction books can cheapen their value by using current lingo and phrases, but you want your reader to feel as if they’re time travelling to the era of your story.
One simple way to do that is to ensure that your dialogue is consistent and accurate historically, so a base knowledge of the period in which your book is set, and attentiveness to detail as you write will instantly upgrade the credibility of your dialogue.
If you’re writing a manuscript set in a century of the past, you may need to brush up on your archaic vocabulary.
Reading books written during the time you’re researching will help immensely; by reading, you’ll develop an understanding of the phrases commonly used and the way people spoke to each other.
If you’re writing a narrative set in England during the mid-1800s, books by the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, and Mary Shelley will be an excellent example of the dialogue spoken then, and stories written by William Bradford and John Winthrop are sources of the common language during colonial America.
It’s important to realise that these books will accurately represent the culture as well as the dialect of the area, so if your protagonist is living in Europe, European literature of that time will be more reliable than American literature published during the same era.
If the period you’re investigating is within the past 200 years, newspapers can be a valuable resource.
Through reading old articles, you can learn the common language of the day as well as gaining an understanding of what was typical in conversation during that time.
What was on the forefront of people’s minds during certain years? Conversations are ruled by thoughts. If people’s minds were full of the politics of the day, that’s what will be spoken of most often; if fashion, then discussions will revolve around fads and styles.
To accurately depict small talk and social gatherings, it’s crucial to know what topics would be most echoed throughout assemblies. Newspapers can be found online, however, most sites require a paid subscription.
If your story takes place in your country, it may be possible to find old newspapers at your local library.
Stories revolve around people, and more specifically, the life that they live and what they do with it.
Nothing is more personal and fuller of someone’s life than a letter, which is often written in a more familiar language and may represent the tone of a typical conversation between two friends better than a newspaper or book. Both views are important and will vary depending on the style and setting of your manuscript.
Letters can be found online and in antique stores and some second-hand book shops.
Many people have devoted their lives to preserving history and passing their knowledge onto the next generation.
Professors and museum curators have spent years studying segments of history, so scheduling a time to talk to someone well-versed in the subject you’re researching may be invaluable. They can expound more on the culture and social situations and may have articles and old documents that are not typically available to the public.
A literature professor could also provide insight into the word usage of the time. They would know how the English language has evolved over centuries, and which words and phrases would be accurate.
If you don’t have any colleges or museums near you, a phone appointment could be scheduled with a scholar from anywhere in the country.
Social etiquette has evolved over centuries; what’s common practice now might have been appalling a century ago, and vice versa.
Class and money ruled the day for most of history, and many people were segregated and even forbidden to talk to others because of such social distinctions. Race, sex, and age were also substantial factors in the social realm.
When writing, it’s important to know the rules of society during the time of your book.
Incorporate Cultural References
Conversations vary in topic from country to country, and even from city to city. One reference may be common and funny in one location and misunderstood or offensive in another. Many of these references revolve around popular movies, celebrities, and politics that other countries would not understand.
References differ between cultures, but also through decades, so you need to have a firm grasp on your target audience and write solely for them. If your target audience is teens, then pop culture references would be received more readily than if you were writing to the retirement age group.
Be careful to not reference anything before it’s time. Some things seem as if they have been around forever, but that’s not the case. For example, if you’re writing a book set during the War for Independence, matches had not been invented yet, and the science behind canning food had not been discovered.
If you’re writing a book that takes place centuries ago, research what methods would be historically accurate for everyday tasks without modern equipment.
Like cultural references, slang can be beneficial and harmful depending on how it is used. As a rule, writing should contain the most proper words and grammar, but depending on the genre being written, slang can be a powerful thing to implement.
Slang varies depending on the location. A group of farmers in Cornwall during the 1890s would have a different dialect than another group of farmers in Devon.
Research some of the words and phrases your characters would have used when talking casually, this will give you a more accurate idea of the conversations passed between them and other people. If your characters live in or are visiting a part of the world you’re not familiar with, studying the language even a little will help adapt your protagonist’s speech.
Words continue to change, and between time and miles, spelling is vastly different. Classics often contain different spellings of common words, so to give your readers the experience of travelling back in time with your characters, try incorporating some of these old spellings into your story.
If your story takes place in Europe, use the European spellings for words such as ‘honour’, ‘theatre’, and ‘realise’. The opposite is true if you’re writing a book set in the United States.
Wherever your story is set, adapting to the spelling of that culture will give your audience a more immersive experience while reading.
Just as words and languages continue to evolve, so does the grammar that accompanies them. Though the basic rules may stay the same, sentence structure and word usage can change from century to century. The book The Elements of Style by William Strunk outlines this technique clearly.
To practice mimicking the style and structure, dissect the sentences in older books. Determine where they placed adjectives, adverbs, gerunds, and other elements of a sentence. This may seem a technical and unnecessary step, but once you try it, the result will amaze you. The changes may be subtle, but these small details are what set apart and distinguish writing.
Try to have your character’s speech follow the grammatical structure as close as possible to achieve that old-time rhythm and language.
Perhaps the easiest way to achieve the lifelikeness desired in a character is to place yourself in their shoes as you write. Your hero or heroine’s speech should flow naturally as if they were a real person speaking.
After you write a line of dialogue, read through the responses, and ask yourself if the conversation could be spoken out loud and still sound right. It’s easy to get caught up in the properness and grammar of a chapter that you forget to make your character sound natural.
Millions of books are produced every year, but what makes a book a bestseller? Good characters are the hallmark of any popular story, and what they say determines your view of them. Their conversation can either cheapen them or raise your view of them. The same thing can happen to your manuscript. What it contains, and what it shares with its readers will either increase or decrease its value.
Books that display little thought and research into the times and culture in which it was written decrease in credibility and reduce their worth.
What enables a classic to withstand the test of time? Their minute attention to detail, and the magical way they transport you to their fictional world.
Every writer strives for such excellence, and being attentive to your dialogue and its accuracy will bring you one step closer to success.
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!