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

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.

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