Turning a Phrase: How to Write Historical Dialogue

Human speech can change extremely quickly. Words that were trending last year are now passé, and terms from ten years ago can seem ancient. When done correctly, historical dialogue can be used as a tool to add polish and an air of authenticity. Done incorrectly, it can completely eject a reader from the story.

Is historically accurate dialogue ever strictly necessary? That seems unlikely, at least when administered in large doses. If you laboriously researched the historical context of every word, you’d have a finished novel in about three decades. It’s probably best to follow the same strategies when writing historical fiction that help create realistic modern dialogue.

Postcards in Time

That said, however, subtle use of vintage terminology— slipped casually into a rendezvous in a Versailles garden or at a booth in a dark speakeasy— can serve as another piece of the backdrop. One title that comes to mind for really nailing this is The Shark Curtain by Chris Schofield, whose meticulous attention to period detail made the "when" of the story seem at least as important as the "where" in developing the setting. Within a few chapters, the decade of the sixties was beginning to seem like its own wholly formed character.

For example: my grandfather liked to call everyone “toots,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary dates to 1936. There are other details I could pull from my memories of him while trying to write a description; his exaggerated tales of the Korean War, his collection of golf clubs, his slick white hair, red nose and the kitchen of his farmhouse in New Hampshire smelling of cigarette smoke and mowed grass. But his “hey, toots” perfectly places him in the context of time. It was a reflection not just of my grandfather’s personality, but of the world he lived in.

Here are a few sources to get you started. Besides, we both know that researching weird old slang terms will give you an excellent excuse to procrastinate instead of writing the actual novel:     

  • Penn Libraries has a helpful database dedicated to the purpose of researching speeches, transcripts, and sermons. 
  • If you have a JSTOR subscription, Duke University publishes a journal called American Speech, which analyzes the development of the English language. Actually, if you’re writing historical fiction at all, you should probably just get a JSTOR account, especially if you're delving further back in time. As with any topic in history, researching how people spoke tends to become increasingly difficult the more years back you're trying to go. That's where more academic sources tend to be the most useful. 
  • There are a number of sources available for listening to old radio broadcasts. Old Time RadioRadioLovers, and the Old Time Radio Network are just a few places where you can actually hear a voice from the past.  
  • Let's not forget old movies. It's fairly obvious, but it's possible to spend hours on YouTube perusing free classics.
  • I live in an area with an overabundance of antique stores. One thing I've noticed is that many of them sell old postcards for a dollar or so, some of which have been written on and postmarked. They offer a small window into the writer's life, talking of strikes or days spent on the beach after riding the trolley. Similarly, the Letter Repository is a digitized archive of letters to and from average people of the 18th through early 20th century.   

Difficult Words, Difficult Reality 

It’s important to remember that the past isn’t all zozzled flappers and backseat bingo. Outdated slang and can also be highly controversial. In a PBS discussion on reading Huckleberry Finn in today’s classrooms, writer David Bradley offered these words of wisdom: “We cannot avoid being hurt. Language hurts people, reality hurts people...People sometimes think the book causes things. It only causes things if there are things there that are waiting to happen.” 

The right to offend or not belongs with the writer, of course, but words are powerful. Take care to understand the roots of the words that you choose. If you do decide to include a controversial term, it might be wise to take some time to carefully analyze your reasons for the decision. 

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Leah Dearborn

Column by Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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Dave Wade's picture
Dave Wade September 5, 2015 - 9:43pm

Speaking of old movies, I was watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN('35) with subtitles and what I heard as Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) saying "don't" was actually "daren't," a contraction of "dare not." I dare say that I don't think even RP English speakers say "daren't," anymore. Problem is, I wouldn't advise using it as authentic period dialogue, as it would confuse the reader and stop the story cold.

LeahD's picture
LeahD from Boston is reading The Devil In The White City September 6, 2015 - 5:25pm

Thanks for the example, Dave. It makes me want to go give Bride of Frankenstein a watch. I agree that deciding whether to include archaic language definitely calls for case by case analysis.