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

The Mimetic Toolbox: Writing Historical Dialogue (Part Three)

When last we parted–notice the arched syntax–we had explored the first three techniques for creating believable dialogue in a historical novel. (See The Mimetic Toolbox: Writing Historical Dialogue — Part Two, Sept. 8, 2008)

Let’s continue the tour:

4) Describe dialect without phonetically spelling it.

I had my characters in The Fire and the Light comment on the harsh differences they heard in spoken Occitan, Latin, and Norman French. In The Spider and the Stone, one of my Scot Borders characters expresses disgust at the heavy brogue of a Highlander. In both instances, the reader is offered a sense of the variant sounds without being forced to wade through them visually in the text.

5) Substitute a more recent and less intrusive language that retains an archaic ring to the modern ear.

Steven Pressfield is the Solon of this brilliant sophistry. I admire the lyrical narratives that he devises in his novels that are often set in the ancient Greek world. This example from his Tides of War can be studied from many angles:

Without the walls awaited war: within, pestilence. Now arose a third scourge: one’s own countrymen, made desperate by the first two. The poor cracked first. Driven by want, they took to plundering the homes of those of middling wealth, which stood vulnerable owing to their banishment of watchmen and stewards, all save the most trustworthy, who themselves took to crime to pay a physician or an undertaker, which professions amounted to the same thing. What good was money if you would not live to spend it? A gentleman would perish, bequeathing his treasure to his sons; these, anticipating their own imminent extinction, ran through their patrimony as fast as their fists could scatter it, abetted by every species of parasite and bloodsucker, seeking the juice as it spilled. You saw it, Jason. Disease would carry off a man’s wife and children; bereft of hope, he sets his own flat alight, then lingers in numb katalepsis, nor disclaims his offense to the brigadiers hastening onto the scene as the blaze consumes the tenancies of his neighbors.

In just one paragraph, Pressfield has effectively applied several of our tools:

* Arched syntax and changed mindset: “Without the walls awaited war: within, pestilence.” War and pestilence are forces with wills of their own. At once, we are launched into the ancient perspective of the world.

* Poetic entry: “Now arose . . .” We can hear the bard regaling us amid the flickering shadows of the hearth fire.

* Foreign term: “Katalepsis” is Greek, and yet we know what is meant here because of its context and English equivalent, “catalepsies.” The usage adds authenticity without obfuscation.

* The substitution of one archaic language for another that is even less comprehendable. Here Pressfield recruits Victorian words to stand in the stead of the ancient Greek: “middling,” “flat,” “gentleman,” “brigadiers,” and “tenancies.” We have no idea how ancient Greek really sounded. How then is a writer to evoke that period without coming off stilted and cartoonish? Some might mistake the use of these terms for imperial anachronisms, but Pressfield knows what he’s doing here. He performs a stunning sleight-of-hand by subconsciously firing our “history” nerve synapses. We hear these 19th century Dickensian mots and are transported into the past without knowing how it was accomplished. This may be the reason that a British actor who plays an ancient Roman or Greek hero in the movies or on stage sounds more authentic to American audiences.

Mary Renault used a variation of this technique when she created dialogue for her characters that inhabited the ancient world:

Greek is a highly polysyllabic language. Yet when writing dialogue for my Greeks I have found myself, by instinct, avoiding the polysyllables of the English language, and using, as far as they are still in the living language, the older and shorter words. This is not because the style parallels Greek style; it is entirely a matter of association and ambience. In Greek, polysyllables are old; in English, mostly Latinised and largely modern. They have acquired their own aura, which they will bring along with them. Their stare, like that of the basilisk, is killing. Take the following sentence, which I have just picked at random from a magazine: “High priority is to be given to training in the skills of community organizing and conflict resolution.” It contains no concept which Plato did not know, or, indeed, did not in fact deal with. But it comes to us steeped in notions of the company report, the social survey, and so forth. When I see writing like this in a historical novel I know what the author is after. He wants us to identify with the situation of his characters as if it were our own. But it isn’t, and identification thus achieved is a cheat. You cannot, as an advertising copywriter would say, enjoy a trip to fifth-century Athens, or Minoan Crete, in the comfort of your own home. You have, as fare as your mind will take you, to leave home and go to them. (Authors on Authors, p. 86)

6) Render the narrative language or dialogue more archaic.

Here’s a solution you may never have considered. Given all of the warnings against alienating the reader with heavy period language, why would a writer choose such a counter-intuitive approach? John Fowles explained his reasoning:

But I soon get into trouble over dialogue, because the genuine dialogue of 1867 (insofar as it can be heard in books of the time) is far too close to our own to sound convincingly old. It very often fails to agree with our psychological picture of the Victorians—it is not stiff enough, not euphemistic enough, and so on; and here at once I have to start cheating and pick out the more formal and archaic (even for 1867) elements of spoken speech. It is this kind of “cheating,” which is intrinsic to the novel, that takes time. (Afterwords: Novelists Talking About Their Novels)

As Pressfield’s Greek philosophers would admonish, all of these mimetic devices should be applied in moderation.

One Response to “The Mimetic Toolbox: Writing Historical Dialogue (Part Three)”

  • Fascinating post. I’m 50K into my novel set in ancient Sparta, and I’m definitely dealing with these sorts of questions. I just discovered your blog, and I love it. Thanks.

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