Monday, March 5, 2012

Writing Historical Dialogue

It's tough to walk the line between authentic period dialogue and a style the modern reader will find readable. Words mean different things these days --for instance, "nice" used to refer to a person who was picky and petty and found fault with everything. And slang from bygone eras can be totally incomprehensible. When a Regency hero says, "I'll put a monkey on that", he was NOT referring to a small primate with a prehensile tail; he meant 500 pounds sterling -- which was a huge sum of money for the time.

Slang and period expressions are like salt. A small sprinkling adds flavor and zest, but too much and you're grabbing for the water glass to wash it away.

But it's just as important to know what a historical character wouldn't say. Would he say that his train of thought had been derailed? -- not in an era before railroad tracks crisscrossed the nation. (In fact, the first known use of the term "derail" dates to about 1850.)

But with so much to think about, how can a writer keep it all straight and still focus on the story? It makes sense to write the first draft without fretting too much over what the character says, or how, or whether there's too much dialect and slang or not enough, or exactly which words would have been used or not yet invented. Then when the story is all in place, there's plenty of time for revision. It may even be wise to make a run through the manuscript looking at one character's dialogue at a time -- keeping the flavor by trimming or adding as necessary in order to remind the reader that this person is from another time – without drowning her in "salt".


  1. I don't write Historical(and I don't read too much either, though I have a weakness for the medieval/renaissance eras fantasy-type of romances), but the evolution of modern language fascinates me.

    Since you're diving into the blogosphere lately, and with today's post on dialogue, I thought you might enjoy csperry's blog, Wordmonger(

    Also, I wanted to say hi :) Took Romance I with you at Gotham Jan 2011(DarcyG), and saying HI! is a lot less like stalking than just following newsletters, going to read and then running away again :) So, er, HI! ;)

  2. Hi, Darcy! -- and thanks for stopping by! I've been resisting blogging but now that I'm here, I'm enjoying myself. :-)