Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past.
The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time.
For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
Writers, I welcome your thoughts.
One of the major characters in my book, “Time Exposure” is Alexander Gardner, a famous, and real, Civil War photographer. Gardner hailed from Paisley, Scotland and arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1856 with a thick Scottish accent. How was I to handle dialogue? I wanted to make sure that the reader knew Gardner was from Scotland. So, I added a bit of dialect. Check this out:
“I must speak to ye, Joseph.” Gardener took a deep breath. “I’ve had a special offer I must consider. Mind ye now, it doesna preclude my maintaining an association with Brady. But, I want ye to be part of me decision.”
I also sprinkled in lots of dinnas, shouldnas, couldnas, ayes, me for my, etc. Ugh. The reader couldn’t possibly forget that Gardner was from Scotland. Or care. He’d already given up on the book.
Thanks to my critique group my eyes were open to this dialect dilemma. I began to notice it in other novels. Too much of an accent: “How vould you vant me to wote?”
Or overuse of slang: “He needs to mellow out, he’s bonkers and that’s too dicey for this girl.”
Or clichéd idiomatic expressions : “Once in a blue moon, we see eye to eye, but you’re usually on the fence, which only adds insult to injury.”
Eeek. The use of “casual” spelling such as lemme, or gimme, can be used . . . sparingly. Dropping “g” for a word ending in “ing” gets tiresome too if used every other sentence. We have to give the reader credit and assume that by dropping a slang word, accent or expression in, they’ll get the point and as they continue to read that character’s dialogue, they’ll naturally hear the dialect.
Some of the worst examples of overusing dialect can be seen when characters have southern or New York accents. Like the use of “Ah” for “I” or “y’all for, well, you know. Then there’s the exaggerated Brooklynese – “toidy-toid and toid street” or “poils for the goils.” (These may actually need translation!) I grew up in Brooklyn and, frankly, you do hear this. It’s one thing, however, to add it to a movie, where you can hear the character say it. It’s another to read it in a book ad nauseum.
So how do you get the character’s geographical location, or educational background across? The best way is through the rhythm of the dialogue and the words you choose. One “aye” from my Scotsman and the reader hears his accent through the rest of the dialogue. To portray a well-educated German you might avoid contractions and use the full words to make the speech more formal sounding: “I should not bother with that if I were you. Do you not think so?”
In the end, you need to do your homework. Learn the true dialect, accent, slang expressions of the region your characters come from, both geographically and historically. Depending upon the time period, speech was often more formal than we’re used to today.
Practice on yourself. Once you know how the dialect really sounds have your character try it out in dialogue in a scene. Read it aloud. Very important, to really hear the effect, you must read it out loud. You’ll find you will most likely want to eliminate all but a smidgen of the dialect. What will be left is the essence of your character.