Posted by: Sarah | May 15, 2006

Dialogue in Historical Fiction

Further to the comment about dialogue in historical fiction in my previous post. Whilst compiling review links for the next issue of The Historical Novel Society Online Newsletter*, I came across a review in Saturday’s Times of three new historical whodunnits, The Elixir of Death by Bernard Knight, Aztec: City of Spies by Simon Levack and Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead by Nick Drake. The reviewer, Peter Millar, comments thusly about what works and what doesn’t in the tricky matter of dialogue in historical novels:

Hilariously [Bernard Knight] says that he is not writing in “olde worlde” language, when that is exactly what he does: everybody sounds as if they have stepped out of a 1950s adventure story: as if Biggles and Algy had had a trip in the Tardis.

Simon Levack makes no apologies for having his Aztecs speak in thoroughly modern English, but he also comes a cropper. On the face of it Aztec: City of Spies, his attempt to bring to life the little-known world of pre-conquest Central America, is brave and original. Yaotl is not so much a sleuth as an intelligent slave who ends up in hot water that only solving mysteries can get him out of.

Levack’s world is illustrated with a teasing map revealing a lakeland landscape of rival kingdoms, all of which today lie buried under the sprawl of Mexico City. His translation of descriptive Aztec names feels a bit odd at first but is easily excused when you come across originals such as Xayacaxolochatl.

On the other hand lines such as “Oh well, that’s just great . . . smartarse here suddenly decides it’s all bollocks”, make it all seem more Essex than Aztec.

In Peter Millar’s opinion (and probably mine if ever read the book, as we seem to be of one mind), it’s only in Nefertiti that the dialogue works, using “a spare style and subtly avoiding too much anachronistic speech.”

As the examples show, anachronism can work (or rather not work) both ways: it can be too modern or too archaic or, gotesquely, both.

These tin-eared approaches can really ruin a novel for me, no matter how good it is in other respects. Of course, we’re talking here of novels set in pre-English-speaking times, or where an unrecognizable version of English is spoken. But I’m sure there’s just as much of an art to balancing a flavour of, say, Tudor or Stuart English with intelligibility to the modern historical fiction reader who isn’t a scholar of the period.

I’d love to know if historical novelists find it difficult to pitch their dialogue just right. Does it come naturally, or doesn’t it really matter?

*The Newsletter is free and you don’t have to be an HNS member to subscribe. There’s a quick link to your right, should you wish to avail yourself of it.



  1. When I was trying to write fiction set in the Anglo-Saxon period I thought long and hard about this. Clearly genuine Old English was out. I was also absolutely set against the “high fantasy” style: all thee and thou and prithee and certes. It worked for William Morris, but who reads his fiction these days?

    I thought long and hard about going down the route that William Barnes, the Dorset poet, advocated – stripping the language of non-Anglo-Saxon words. Barnes coined some wonderful words – booklore for literature, bendsome for flexible, and, less usefully for me, sun-print for photograph.

    Trouble is, that would have been a lot of work, and most readers wouldn’t have cared. If it had got in the way of the storytelling I’d never have had it published. I am keeping the idea stored away, along with the use of kennings (isn’t “the Whale Road” simply the best term for the sea that you have ever come across?) and Beowulfian digressions for when I can afford to write something self-indulgent just for fun.

    In the end I went for modern idiomatic (but not slangy) English where the characters would have used informal speech. The few people who read any of that stuff commented that it was unexpected at first, but they soon got used to it.

    In the end I decided to write something set in the early 19th Century, and the whole issue rather went away.

    You’re right though – it is a problem.

  2. It is a real problem. I tried the approach of avoiding words with non-English roots, but after a while I felt it was unnecessarily restrictive. Modern English is such a flexible language with so many shades of meaning and nuance that it seemed a shame not to use the full range. I suspect that Old English probably had a wider vocabulary than has come down to us in the written sources. I try to use idiomatic modern English for informal speech, on the basis that the characters would have been using idiomatic Old English (or Brittonic) and idiomatic modern English is a closer approximation to that than the language of formal epic poetry. I do try to avoid figures of speech that depend on objects or concepts that wouldn’t have been known at the time though. So for example I might use ‘nob’ as a slightly disrespectful slang term for a nobleman, but I wouldn’t use terms like ‘back-pedalling’ or ‘meltdown’ as they depend on knowledge of the bicycle and the nuclear reactor, respectively. And the style depends on the individual, so an educated character who speaks two or three languages has a wider vocabulary and range of expression than someone who’s never left their home village. Whether it works is in the mind of the reader, though.

  3. I use very few contractions and avoid words out of time in my worlds, but else I’ve given up to tie my brain into a knot about dialogue. Dialogue like in Ivanhoe are something few reader will accept nowadays.

    A few characters have pecularities, like Alastair who tends to be more formal and use grand words when he speaks French not Gaelic; and Talorcen, when speaking Latin, gets the syntax wrong sometimes. Though it is tricky to find a balance for characters who don’t speak a language fluently – too much incorrectness will annoy the reader.

  4. This is the only valid excuse that I know for changing reality in historical fiction.

    If your characters are supposed to be speaking in Latin, Italian, Old English, or Aztec, you have no problem. You merely use plain English, with no 2006 slang that will date quickly and disastrously.

    I only ran into this problem with my Newfoundland novels, “The Strange Things of the World”, set in 1536. (In its companion, “Forty Testoons”, set in 1504-5, the narrator explained that he was writing in Latin, a choice on his part that was very helpful to me.) “The Strange Things of the World” purported to be an oral account being related by an old man, in sixteenth-century English. The use of authentic English of the period would have made the novel (more?) unreadable, so I settled for the odsbodikins method of using vocabulary and sentence structure that suggested the period without really being accurate.

  5. I agree with Alan about using ‘Plain English with no slang that will date quickly and disastrously.’ When I first started out in my career I confess to a touch of the ‘twisy twasery’ school of writing – although I hope never over the top. However, as I’ve gone on, I’ve come to loathe it and will avoid any novel where the characters use ”twas, aye and nay’ as a matter of frequency. Occasionally I don’t mind anachronistic language in what I’m reading, if it’s intentional and if the writer knows his/her period back to front and inside out. Brian Wainwright’s Adventures of Alianor Audeley springs to mind and Catherine Jinks’ YA series about Templar squire Pagan Kidrouk. Rathbone’s The Last English King didn’t do it for me though and I wall-banged it. I enjoy using the occasional period word for flavour when writing, but it has to be qualified in some form or other so the reader understands what you’re on about. The main thing is not to jar the reader out of the story.

  6. Sorry to be so late in thanking you all for your thoughtful replies, which I’ve enjoyed reading. It’s fascinating to learn how novelists approach this thorny question.

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