Monday, September 28, 2020

Writing Dialogue in Historical Fiction

Annamaria on Monday 

Today’s blog was inspired by a question I received this past week from Angélica Ramírez - Doctora en Traducción, who is translating my debut novel City of Silver into Spanish.  My story takes place in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru (now Bolivia) in 1650.  Here is what Angélica asked: “Should we try to take the readers to the past and give them a taste of 17th-century Spanish by using all old forms of respect? Or should we produce a version written in contemporary Spanish that would be more readable?

This is a proverbial question.  Those of us who have published in this genre, especially if our books are set deep in the past, often get this question in bookstores and libraries.  My favorite all time answer was given at a Bouchercon 2016 panel by my friend Jeri Westerson.  Jeri writes marvelous noir mysteries that take place in Medieval England.  An audience member asked if her characters shouldn’t talk the way people did the Middle Ages.  Jeri said, “I made a conscious decision not to write my novels in Middle English.”  The line got the laugh it deserved.

While John Fowles was writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman—a novel which takes place in the 1860s, he kept a diary, part of which was published by Granta Magazine.  Here is what he wrote on May 20,1967, along with my bracketed explanatory addition: “I am writing The French Lieutenant’s Woman at the moment; and reading Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton [novel published in 1848] at the same time.  Her dialogue is much more ‘modern’ than mine—full of contractions, and so on.  Yet in order for me to convey the century that has passed since the time of my book I am right to invent dialogue that is much more formal than the Victorians actually spoke.  This gives the illusion better.  In a sense an absolutely accurate Victorian dialogue would be less truthful than I am doing.”

Most historical novelists that I admire make the same sorts of decisions.   Oh, I am not saying we play fast and loose with the truth.  Some, moi included, are so fastidious that—now that we can google it—we keep track of the phase of the moon on the day we are writing about, so we can get that right.  You see, I have to feel as if I am there in order to imagine my characters living in my story’s time and place. Until I have done enough research to “go there” myself, I haven’t got a prayer of taking a reader there.


This means that, in all these sorts of decisions, the story must come first.  Telling a good yarn while turning the reader into a time traveler is what we historical novelists aim for.  Anything that zaps the reader back to the present has to be left out.  In sentence structure and word choice, we try to make our prose sound “old-fashioned” and of the time period but WITHOUT causing the reader to stumble over it.  Or take too much notice of it.  We want the reader to get lost in the story.  We want the prose to sing to the reader

What is true—in this context—is not the deciding factor.  As John Fowles wrote, expressions that sound too modern interfere with the historic atmosphere.  So they must be left out, even if you can prove they were actually used in the period in question.  For instance, my novel “Strange Gods” takes place in Colonial Africa in 1911.  In researching those times, I read a memoir written during that period where a policeman reported that a gun-toting suspect “got the drop on” him.  When the same thing happened to my protagonist, I used the phrase “got the advantage of” simply because the other words sound too modern, which would make the reader think their use was anachronistic.

Angélica, my brilliant translator of City of Silver, knows that, in the 17th Century, Spaniards used elaborate forms of address.   Here is what she said:

“…people used certain vocatives to express respect (Vuestra Merced and vuesa merced) that are not used anymore. Nowadays, we use a pronoun, "usted", to show respect, formality, and/or distance towards people belonging to a higher level of the social hierarchy.”

Here is how her translations would differ, depending on what I decided:

In English:

 “Be very careful, Mother Abbess,” he said. “The Bishop feigns carelessness, but he is a formidable enemy And you have something he wants.”

In ancient Spanish:

"Tened cuidado, Madre Abadesa", expresó. "El Obispo finge no preocuparse, pero es un enemigo formidable. Vuestra Merced tiene algo que él desea". 


In contemporary Spanish:

 "Tenga cuidado, Madre Abadesa", expresó. “El Obispo finge no preocuparse, pero es un enemigo formidable. Usted tiene algo que él desea"


Though I am not a Spanish speaker, with my Italian and study of Latin, I can, sort of, read the modern one.  The ancient one sounds clunky to even my ignorant ears.  Still, what I needed was to give Angélica the right to choose for me.  So, I gave her my rule of a rule of thumb:  Please use constructions that sound old-fashioned, but not ones that would make the reader think about the language instead of reading on.

On the other hand, as in real life, fictional people should reveal their characteristics by the words they choose.  I once heard, in an interview, Stephen Sondheim criticize his own lyrics for a song in Westside Story.  In the song “I Feel Pretty,” the young, innocent Maria sings, “It’s alarming how charming I feel.”  In retrospect, Sondheim felt the mellifluous lyric was a mistake.  Far too sophisticated for Maria.  It is a sentence she would never say.


In this vein, in 1913 Colonial Africa, one might have an Oxford educated top administrator use the words “indeed” or “insufficient.” A boorish drunk in a bar or an askari who has just learned English would never use those words.

Whatever the considerations, I feel strongly that the language used must never pull the reader out of the story.  That is my ruling principle.  But, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles continually pulls the reader out of the story.  Oh, not with weird language choices, but with mini-lectures on Victorian life from the point of view of a man living one hundred years later.  The beginning of his Chapter 13 is my favorite lecture on why novelists must give their characters free will to do what they want or need to do.  Not what the novelist-as-God forces them to do.  Lecturing that pulls the reader out of the story is the last thing I think a historical novelist should do.  But when John Fowles does it, it delights me.


I wish I could understand how he gets away with it.  


  1. I love the dialogue in your novels! And, like you, I've had to make some of those same choices. Also like you (and Jeri, to an extent) I've opted for language that keeps the reader in the story, rather than medieval Japanese. :)

    1. Susan, We also have the need to present dialogue when the people who are speaking are not speaking English. But we are writing in English. I am in the middle of reading book that takes place a hundred years ago in the Middle East and I am admiring how the writer--when the characters are speaking Arabic--gives their language something of a flowery, poetic cast. Just enough to let you know how Arabs speak. This kind of thing makes the reading even more fun.

  2. Fascinating, Annamaria. We try to do the same thing in a small way to distinguish between formal older Botswanan people and their younger colleagues by not using contractions in dialog for the former.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I recall that from the outset, Kubu has always spoken in that ultra polite way to his parents and to older people. He (!) changed his speech patterns to demonstrate his respect. I loved it that you and Stan did that so deftly, that without explanation, the reader knew exactly what was going on. Bravi!

    2. Yep, yep. In my novel settings in Ghana, English that isn't Pidgin would tend to be more formal (like with Kubu) with fewer contractions, which to western readers may sound awkward or clunky. My editors sometimes substitute with contractions, which I change right back! Also, the liberal use of "please" as a form of address may sound odd and over-repetitive, but I couldn't possibly leave out such a quintessentially Ghanaian form of expression.

    3. Right, Kwei! You take us to a place many of your readers think exotic. It is so much better if you give us a taste of it that makes that feel to us out of the ordinary. It is part of the charm of your stories!

  3. I face a variation on that theme, Sis, in writing Greek dialog--with its many colorful idioms-- in English. I've concluded that the best way to achieve that is not through a translation of the idiom (which will make no sense to a non-Greek reader) but by applying an English-language idiom conveying the speaker's intention.