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How to Write Accurate Historical Dialogue for Your Novel: Part 2 | Explained by UK Book Editor

Writing Historical Fiction | Writing Historical Dialogue

Professional book editor suggests how to make historical dialogue accurate in your novel, ensuring that all fictional characters sound believable to the era of the story.

“The past is another country,” said Henry Sidebottom, a historical novelist, but he could just have easily said: the past is another language.

After all, you only have to ask any student studying Shakespeare and they’ll tell you that the language is the part they struggle with the most. However, it does play an inherent part in setting the scene of any novel in its proper place in history.

When it comes to writing a book, the author can’t fall back on visual clues the way a movie or TV series can. They can tell us the car that’s being driven or the clothes the characters are wearing, but it’s through dialogue that the real era of the novel is portrayed.

This is where we show rather than tell the reader when they are, and every writer should understand the importance of ‘show, don’t tell’.

However, writing an entire medieval novel in medieval English is going to make the reading pretty unbearable for anyone but the staunchest history buff. The trick is to use it sparingly, to introduce phrases that were popular in the time period without making their entire speeches consistent with them.

For example, in Medieval England, it was more popular to say “aye” as a form of agreement rather than “yes”. But if they are constantly saying “aye” in every other sentence, it’s going to get jarring to the reader. Therefore, judicial use is the key.

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I find that using words and phrases of the era near the beginning of the book is best. It sets the scene, and once set, the reader will pick it up from there in their head. They have formed an idea of the characters’ speech patterns, and so you, the author, no longer need to regularly remind them of it in the rest of the story.

That’s not to say stop using them completely at that point, just use them sparingly to keep the story centred at that point in history.

There are, however, historical novels that go back far before the use of modern English as we know it, and that’s where it can get very tricky.

For example, if you have a historical novel set during the biblical era, there’s not really much possibility to emulate their speech patterns, common phrases or even the opposing ways that people of different classes would have spoken to each other. The people of this time wouldn’t even have spoken English at all!

As a result, you could introduce a formality into their way of speaking that simply sets the language apart from the modern day. You could also create a scene that discusses the oils a female character applies to her hair, or create a conversation across the dinner table where the characters could praise the food they’re eating, therefore conveying the era instead of completely changing their dialogue.

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It’s only when we get to more modern times that it really becomes possible to instil the flavour of tone and nuance into the dialogue of our characters. And for this, there are many resources.

Pick up any good historical novel and you’ll probably find that the author has captured the correct speech of the time. For example, something by Bernard Cornwell and Phillipa Gregory – they’ve written countless historical novels and captured the essence of their chosen time periods perfectly, even though both of them are modern authors.

Here’s a piece of dialogue from Georgette Heyer’s historical novel, Regency Buck, published in 1935:

"Well, my love,” said Mrs Scattergood as the carriage moved on, “you may say what you will, but excepting on Mr Brummell, there is no one in town who dresses so well as Worth! Such an air of fashion! I believe you may see your face in his boots as well as in your mirror.”

From just this short passage, the scene is set. The dialogue tag tells us that they are travelling by carriage - never underestimate the importance of your dialogue tags, but that’s a topic for another day. We can also guess at the relationship between the woman speaking and the recipient. Clearly, her use of the term ‘love’ tells us that she is an older woman and affectionate to her younger companion.

The author goes on to give the reader another indication of the era by referencing a famous historical figure in the form of Beau Brummell, and finally, the most telling of all, they discuss fashion. Notably, the air of fashion in the character they’re discussing. Fashion, of course, was one of the constant topics of the day for the bored upper classes of the time.

The mention of the shine of the boots instantly paints us a picture of this character - he takes his appearance seriously, and we can easily assume he’s well off and employs a valet to have such highly polished boots. Notice also, the slight difference in the speech pattern from how we would phrase those same words today.

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Now let us jump forward in time to the 1920s. Another popular era for historical novels, and a random quote from Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen by P.G. Wodehouse, published in 1974:

“For one thing,” she said, “you smoke too much. You must give that up when we are married. Smoking is just a habit, Tolstoy,” she said, mentioning someone I had not met, “says that just as much pleasure can be got from twirling the fingers.” My impulse was to tell her Tolstoy was off his onion, but I choked down the heated words.

We can instantly see how the speech pattern has changed from the regency formality, into a much more familiar style of address between characters. Once again, a popular figure of the era has been referenced. Not that I suggest that you throw in historical figures willy-nilly into every bit of dialogue, but the occasional mention certainly helps.

There’s also a key reference to smoking, a very popular past-time of the period. But most importantly, I think, is the forthright manner in which the female character addresses her suitor. The 1920s was a heyday for women throwing off the demure attitude and standing up for themselves, and this character doesn’t shirk from doing exactly that.

But how can you, the author, hope to learn to get this familiar with the dialogue of the time period? The simplest way is, of course, to read. Immersing yourself in other novels set in the same era as your own writing will give you a general feel for how people spoke until you almost find yourself adopting a similar pattern in your own speech.

It helps to remember that class distinction was much more prevalent throughout history than it is today, so it would benefit you most to seek out books where the characters are from the same class as your own.

The difficulty may come, however, from the fact that ‘literary language’ is not always realistic. It has often gone through a process of being ‘cleaned up’ by the author to make it more palatable for the reader, and this sometimes does language an injustice. It’s not difficult to go onto the internet and pick up a few choice ‘slang’ words or phrases from your time period and add them for some real flavour.

In essence, your time period should become as much a character as your protagonist, and their use of dialogue is the best way to achieve this.

Unfortunately, there’s a tendency for a well-researched historical novel to overdo the language, and I also want to stress that moderation is the watchword here. If you give too much historical accuracy, you run the risk of making it into a caricature.

Overdone dialogue will jar the reader from the story. It needs to feel natural to the reader and not like a constant reminder, going back to my original point of adding just enough near the introduction for the reader to become familiar with speech patterns and unusual word usage, without continuously reminding them that they say those things or speak that way.

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Final Words

Most readers are not historical experts, but they probably enjoy reading other books from the same era as yours, which is why they’ll hopefully buy your book, too.

Therefore, the most important thing to remember is to avoid blatant mistakes (using words that are common today but didn’t exist in certain places in history) and to simply imbue a feel for the time period.

Keep your dialogue realistic without letting it become too distracting or all-encompassing for today’s reader.

A little goes a long way.



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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!


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