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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

The Mimetic Toolbox: Writing Historical Dialogue (Part Two)

In Part One (See August 5) of my discussion on creating believable speech for the historical novel, I proposed a two-pronged approach: immersion and technique.

Having accomplished our preparation before sitting down to write, we can now explore what I call the “mimetic” approach to dialogue and language.

I use the term “mimetic” because our goal should be to mime the diction and idioms of a particular era without recreating them exactly as would a court reporter. Real archaic dialect is harsh and off-putting to most modern ears. Anyone who was required to read Middle English in school has no desire to relive that experience in a novel.

The oil painter doesn’t precisely copy the reality of a landscape on his canvas. Rather, he employs techniques such as shading and perspective to fool the onlooker’s visual acuity. Likewise, a writer must resort to mimetic devices to summon a believable simulacrum of real speech.

1) Change Your Modern Mindset

At first glance, this may seem an odd injunction for writing dialogue. Yet in my estimation, it’s the most important of the tools we’ll discuss.

When I played basketball, the coaches told me to watch the stomach of the opponent I was guarding; the ball followed his hand, the hand his arm, and the arm his core.

Writing demands the same focus. We need to keep our eye on the unique world paradigms of our characters, and their dialogue will follow naturally.

A non-fiction book that made a great impression on me years ago was Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. The psychologist posited that, until the second millennium B.C., men and women had no consciousness as we understand it. Instead, they blindly followed the voices in their heads, mistaking them for the commands of the gods.

We should strive to understand the diverse ways in which the minds of those living during past ages worked differently. Accomplish this trick, and you may find that many of your problems with dialogue will dissolve.

Consider this passage by Larry McMurtry in Streets of Laredo:

Long ago, Gus McCrae had teased the Rangers by calculating how much fight each man had in him, as if fight could be measured like oats or some substance that could be placed on a scale.

“Call, now, he’s about ninety-eight percent fight,” Gus had said. “Take away the fight and he’d be so weak, he couldn’t mount his horse. But that’s unusual. I’m only about forty percent fight myself. Pea, I expect you’re about twelve percent or so, and old Deets about fifteen.”

Twelve percent didn’t sound like much to Pea, but he resolved to use every oat of it to struggle past the killer and get to the river where Lorena was. . .

McMurtry doesn’t cast his spell on readers by groping for peculiarly Western or frontier language. His characters simply think differently than we do. They have a Shakespearean bent for finding fresh metaphors and similes under every rock and tumbleweed. Not one word in the preceding passage would raise an eyebrow if spoken in any shopping mall today. Yet who among us would think of calculating the courage of a man by weighing it like a sack of oats on a scale?

2) Arch the Syntax

Altering the structure of a sentence, even slightly, can work wonders. Here’s an example from Umberto Eco in Baudalino:

From the courtyard of the Genoese came the laments of Niketas’s daughters, who were reluctant to have their faces smeared with dirt, accustomed as they were to the vermilion of their cosmetics.

A modern rendition might read:

Spoiled by their expensive rouge makeup, Niketa’s daughters cried out from their Genoese courtyard in protest at having their faces smeared with dirt.

The difference is merely a matter of a few centuries.

3) Judicious Use of Dialect

Anthony Burgess confronted the problem of rendering appropriate dialect in Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life. Interviewed for Afterwords: Novelists Talking About Their Novels, Burgess explained the dilemma and his solution:

And yet the problem of an appropriate style stood in the way. Obviously the language had to be an approximation to Elizabethan English, but behind me lay the horrible examples of Wardour-street, the Sir Walter Scotteries of gadzooks, the embarrassment of thou and thee. Unlike the Englishmen of the South, however, I belong to a dialectal tradition that still uses the tutoyer long abandoned by the Queen’s English. In Lancashire we say “Where’s that going, lad?” and get the reply “I’m coming back with thee to thy place.” If I used tha in my novel, that would be close to a living tradition and fare enough from the artificialities of Wardour-street.

Diane Gabaldon weaves her mimetic illusions by incorporating a dozen or so phonetic Scot and Gaelic derivations, such as “aye,” “dinnae,” and “canna.” The secret to her approach is consistency and circumspection in their usage.

One bit of wile is to introduce a character with heavy dialect and have another character comment on the difficulty in understanding him. With the reader’s impression thusly set, you can slowly ease back from the dialect as the novel progresses.

Dialect can be particularly useful in indicating a character’s low social standing or lack of education and intelligence. But remember: Like garlic and chillies, a little dialect sprinkled in the right places goes a long way.

3) Foreign phrases

A patina of authenticity can be burnished into your prose by including an occasional foreign phrase within your character’s dialogue or thought. This convention is most often used for Latin, French, and Spanish. Many readers have at least a passing acquaintance with the Romance languages, but I’ve also seen this technique used to advantage with more esoteric languages, followed by a translation.

A variation on this theme can be attained when the author reminds the reader that the dialogue is spoken in another tongue, particularly in scenes where your character visits another country.

Here’s a superb example from Sena Jeter Nasland in Abundance, her novel about Marie Antoinette:

Now the King speaks in Latin, which I do not understand but know that he sounds as serious, as wise, and as dedicated to God as any priest. In the way that he stresses each word, it is as though I can hear him say Jed m’enage a’ cela de bon coeur, “I promise this with a true heart,” for he is the most sincere of men.”

Did you catch Nasland’s subtle double feint? She mixes in references to two foreign languages at once, expressing ignorance of one (Latin) while the seizing the opportunity to insert the second (French) for good effect.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the final three techniques in my Mimetic Toolbox.

Calling All Conspiracy Theorists

Catching up on some long-overdue reading: If you’re working on a historical mystery and need some good psychological fodder for your characters, you might want to check out Max Holland’s list of the five best books ever written about conspiracy theories and the reasons they flourish. (See the Feb 2-3 edition of The Wall Street Journal, page W8).

Holland knows a thing or two about conspiracies. He wrote “The Kennedy Assassination Tapes,” published by Knopf in 2004.

He gives top marks to Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which studied right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society in the 1960s, and Robert Alan Goldberg’s “Enemies Within,” a more modern review.

Canna Ye Nae Savvy Me Brogue?

John Fowles once lamented that getting the Victorian language right in The French Lieutenant’s Woman was the most difficult technical problem he had confronted in writing.

Success with historical dialogue depends on navigating the treacherous channel between the Scylla of sounding stilted and contrived and the Charybdis of coming off too modern and anachronistic. This daunting task is easier prescribed than accomplished.

I’ve come to rely on a two-pronged approach: Immersion and technique.

Diane Gabaldon is the lady laird of archaic speech. Of all the historical novelists I’ve studied, she inches closest to the precipice of inaccessible dialect without losing her footing. Few of us are blessed with her ear for precision or her acumen in Gaelic and Scots English. Even fewer of us have merited a companion book with glossaries and guides to Gaelic pronunciations.

In The Spider and the Stone, my novel about the Black Douglas, I gave up all pretensions of approximating Gabaldon’s flair for the brogue and peculiarities of speech in 14th century Scotland. Instead, I took refuge in several techniques that comprise what I call my Mimetic Toolbox for writing believable dialogue.

In Parts Two and Three of our future discussion on this topic, I’ll open my bag of stratagems for your inspection.

Before commencing a new novel, I try for a running start by immersing myself, as much as possible, in the vocabulary, rhythms of speech, peculiar syntax, and sounds of my era. Diaries and primary sources are helpful. Keeping a notebook of phrases, terms, and curses is invaluable. To gain mastery of the Scot accents in Outlander, Gabaldon listened to Scottish folksongs, particularly those performed in live recordings. She learned a lot from overhearing the conversations of audience members during the lulls between sets.

While I was writing The Fire and the Light, my novel set in 13th century Occitania, I listened to contemporary renderings of authentic ballads and servientes once sung by the medieval troubadours. I also read English translations of troubadour verse. Something in the timbre of the lute and viol from that period gave me a better sensibility for Occitan speech—or at least what modern ears might perceive this vanishing language sounded like.

Gabaldon also recommends reading other novels set in your era. Yet this can be problematic if you don’t have a firm grip on your own style. My former instructor, John Rechy, cautions students in his professional writers’ workshop against reading authors with a similar style to theirs, particularly while they have a novel in progress. He doesn’t want them to abdicate their natural style by subconsciously allowing another’s imprint to seep in and overpower. His admonition may also be warranted for novels set during the same time period. You’ll have to weigh the relative benefits and risks.

One last consideration: If you know in advance that you’ll be confronting thorny issues of dialect and speech patterns, consider avoiding the first-person point of view. The more distant you dial back the point of view, the less the reader will be aware of the variances between modern and antiquarian idioms.

In a future post, we’ll muck around in the Mimetic Toolbox.