Making a Write Turn (of Phrase)

I have a good friend from Australia.

(I swear, this isn’t the start of a limerick.)

My Aussie friend – let’s call her NR – became a friend having been my roommate here in Vancouver for almost two years.  During those years, we spend a tremendous amount of time together, talking about everything under the sun, singing songs, making jokes, arguing, and telling each other how much we love each other.

Needless to say, I’ve come to know her Aussie accent really well.

I’ve already confessed in a previous post to having a penchant for trying to mimic accents and foreign turns of phrase.  Indeed, NR says that having me around is sometimes like an annoying little echo aping her alternate pronunciations –

  • “AH-mund” (“almond”)
  • “ah-loo-MIN-nium” (“aluminium”)
  • “MAS-sage” (“massage” made to sound really kinky)
  • “Douglas FAAH” (“Douglas Fir” – one of the most common tree types found along the coast of British Columbia)

– not to mention her non-North American expressions, such as “reckon” (to perceive or imagine something), “crook” (ill or unwell), “capsicum” (a bell pepper), and my personal favourite, “rear-vision mirror” (the rear-view mirror in a car, which, when spoken in the typical Aussie cadence actually comes out sounding more like “revision mirror”.)

This is all fun and games for me, and NR as well I’m fairly certain, for it’s practically a national pastime among the Australians to “take the piss out of” (tease or make fun of) friends and likewise be a good sport when others take the piss out of you.

However, beyond mere amusement, my interactions with NR have led to think a lot about dialects in general, and how that effects my writing.  For not only do numerous ones tend to exist within a given language, these dialects also vary across time as well geographical space.

In other words, how do I create effective historical dialogue?

The language of a bygone era

When it comes to creative effective dialogue, there are two big concerns historical fiction writers need to consider:

  1. Utilizing regional and historical vocabulary and syntax
  2. Avoiding the use of anachronistic (i.e. chronologically inaccurate) vocabulary and syntax

Of the two, I find the first consideration much easier to manage.

This may be because my novel takes place in medieval England.  Having British family, a British co-worker, and NR (there are many similarities between British and Aussie speech), I’m thus able to use my knowledge of modern British speech to inform the regional aspects of the dialogue in the story.

Or it might be because I already know my goal isn’t to recreate authentic 13th century English, for such would read closer to Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales, and not be particularly accessible to a modern audience at all.  Rather, what I’m trying to do is, in the words of historical fiction author, David Mitchell,

…create a sort of dialect – I call it “Bygonese” – which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a pine new dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.

Mitchell goes on to write that in effective “Bygonese”…

Commonly, shall is used more often than will; conditional sentences appear (as in “Had I but seen him, I would have shot him stone dead”); and contractions discouraged by old school headmistresses – such as “gonna” – are avoided.

More than just using non-modern sentence construction, effective historical dialogue will also include vocabulary that is consistent with both the geographical area and the historical era in which the story takes place.  An example of geographical vocabulary from my own writing is the word “poorly”, which is a British term for “unhealthy”, “ailing” or “in shabby condition”.  An example of mine of historical vocabulary is “vassal”, which is a free subject that holds feudal land from a lord.

Say what?

Some historical dialogue will be truly out of history – that is to say, it will contain antiquated views of the world and/or terms and expressions for things that no longer exist in the modern world.  Encountering either of these circumstances in a historical fiction novel can be jarring and off-putting to a reader.  Dr. Sanjida O’Connell writes of her historical fiction novel, Sugar Island,

 [I]n Sugar Island, a novel dealing with slavery, hearing the slaves speak (and be called the N-word), raises the hackles of our modern-day sensibilities.

David Mitchell further adds that, [L]ines such as ‘Shall I bid Jenkins ready the Phaeton coach, or might Madam prefer the two-wheeled barouche landau?’ will kill.”

Historical fiction writers therefore need to acclimatize the reader to the dialogue of the time period early and often.  In the case of offensive dialogue, proper care must be exercised in demonstrating the story setting as being a place where speaking such words makes contextual sense.

Meanwhile, with the confusing period words that will necessarily colour the dialogue, some sort of explanation is necessary.

This could be a description of a character interacting with the object in question such that the object can be described (e.g. The lady surveyed the Phaeton, considering. It’s open-air construction would be cooling in the summer heat, yet she wasn’t sure two horses could be spared from the stables to pull it.).

It could be a more direct explanation by the narrator (e.g. Jenkins brought round the Phaeton as ordered, parking the open-aired, double-horse drawn carriage by the main door.).

Or, it could be a glossary of terms at the beginning or end of the story.

Writing historical dialogue ain’t that hard

Offensive and confusing dialogue aren’t the only mistakes a historical fiction writer can make that threatens to throw the reader out of the story.  According to David Mitchell,

[O]nce your Bygonese is perfected, anachronism is waiting to blight it. For every obvious no-no (a feudal castle-builder complaining, “Gravity is not on our side”), there are others waiting to slip through….

I struggle at bit more with this aspect of writing historical dialogue; indeed, whenever I read excerpts of my novel-in-progress to my writers’ group, the feedback I heard most often is that “X” or “Y” (“war zone” and “actualize” are two recent examples) are modern words.  Which they are, and the moment it was pointed out to me, I immediately wondered how they managed to sneak past me in the first place.

But I already know the answer to that question: it’s because I tend to write dialogue quite fast, and focus more on the rhythm of the words (how many syllables they have and which are stressed and unstressed) than the words themselves.  As well, I’m not editing my first draft as I go, not even the excerpts I read for the group beyond a quick go-over for typos, misplaced words, and word combinations that don’t sound good when read aloud.

If I had a mind to be proactive in eliminating anachronisms in my dialogue up front (and since I’m not, when it comes time for doing so during my first draft edits), the Online Etymology Dictionary is a fantastic reference that indicates which century given words first came into use.

So too is the British-created Chambers Dictionary, the much older versions of which not only give the dates of words, but also contain a large number of archaic and unusual words, as well as entries in the English of Britain, Canada, the US, Australia-New Zealand, Indian, and South Africa.

Finally, as I’ve been doing – as in so many other aspects of writing – the best way to discover if something is jarring or out of place is to read it out loud to others.  Just like real speech is meant to be.

(Image source)


Writers of all genres, what methods do you use to create effective dialogue?  Writers of historical fiction, can you think of any other useful strategies for making dialogue sound like it’s from the past?  Consider leaving a comment.

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2 thoughts on “Making a Write Turn (of Phrase)

  1. There’s a lot of really great information here, Janna.
    Being an Aussie I had to have a laugh at the beginning of the post 😀
    I read somewhere recently that NZ speech is the closest surviving dialect to old English (but don’t quote me on that because I can’t remember where I read it) 🙂


    • Hi Diane. I’m glad you like reading about my Aussie friend. Of course, there are so many Aussies living in Vancouver, I hear the accent all the time, and think I’ve managed to pick up a fair bit of the lingo for when I finally visit Down Under some day. That’s interesting what you read about New Zealand speech. I’ll have to make sure to visit there as well to have a listen.

      Hope you’re having a good trip. 🙂 I’ll soon be heading off on a short journey myself.


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