Dialogue in Historical Fiction

Cara Hogarth is the author of The Rose and Her Knight and other medieval historical romances. When we spoke, the topic of dialogue came up. As mystery author Elizabeth George says: “The words a character uses, the syntax he employs, and his diction become another tool to reveal character to a reader.” How does that work for historical fiction? Over to you, Cara.

~~~

The past is a foreign country.” People spoke differently there.

Historical fiction promises time travel. It aims to transport our minds back in time while leaving our bodies comfortably in the present. To weave this spell of pastness, novels offer many little details proper to the setting. Beyond mere dates or famous events, we discover what characters are wearing, smelling, eating, their religious views, their prejudices, etc. Historical verisimilitude is absolutely central to the genre: novelists weave an illusion of past reality on a foundation of all those little facts.

Which means authors undertake a nearly impossible task. They’re expected to get every detail right. Readers are outraged when they detect an anachronism. I for one get mightily peeved when potatoes turn up in medieval-set novels. Unless that novel’s set in South America, there shouldn’t be a potato in sight! My point is, one little anachronism and the spell is broken. The reader’s jerked back into the twenty-first century and really grumpy about it. 

Character dialogue poses a particular challenge to verisimilitude: unless the historical setting is recent and the language the same as the reader’s (in my case, English), fictional characters simply cannot speak in a historically-accurate manner.

The further back you go, the stranger the English language gets. If I literally took you back to, say, London of the 1200s, you’d struggle to understand what people said. Even in c.1400, Chaucer’s English is hard work: 

            “I graunte, ywis,” quod he, “but I moot thynke

            Upon som honest thyng while that I drynke.” (Canterbury Tales)

Link to Wife of Bath image https://www.luminarium.org/medlit/wife1.jpg

Alternately, an English-language novel with foreign-language dialogue must perform some sneaky translation magic if the reader is to understand it at all

Readers don’t actually want dialogue that’s 100% faithful to the historical setting. We just want that verisimilitude spell woven about us. We’re willing to suspend disbelief in order to time-travel, but the writer must meet us halfway—their words mustn’t jar us out of the historical illusion by…

seeming too modern. E.g., in Matthew Reilly’s The Tournament, the future Queen Elizabeth I and her friends sound positively Victorian:

            [Elizabeth] leapt up, smiling broadly. “What a splendid idea! Can Gwinny and Elsie come, too? Can they? Please?”

            Mr Ascham frowned, glanced at Miss Kate. “I fear I am already bending far too many rules just by taking you, my young princess,” he said.

Nor should they seem stilted or farcically archaic or we stop believing whoever says them is “real”. I feel the following two quotes (whose authors shall remain unidentified) fall into this category:

            “Ye have gone too far this time, wench. Ye insulted our guest and shamed me in front of my hall.”

(For the love of God, gi’ me no ye’s, even if your story’s set in olde Scotland!)

            “Prithee, you must show some patience…. Our God will send you a sign. A sign to show you the way. ’Twill appear very soon, mayhap this se’ennight.” 

(Prithee, give me no prithees, or mayhap I will lose patience.)

And the author had better not make us work too hard to understand what’s being said, or we’ll just give up, as I did The Wake:

            what is this fugol i saes to my wifman

            i cnaw naht of fugols she saes why does thu asc me of these things

Sorry, Paul Kingsnorth, I just couldn’t hack a whole book written in quasi-Old English.

Argh! It’s a tightrope, a minefield, a treacherous sucking swamp! Some historical novelists take the safe route around the swamp by making characters speak in neutral modern English. Do they risk weakening the verisimilitude spell? Perhaps. Conversely, writers love to play with language. Difference in dialogue can simply be fun. I’d say most historical novelists inject some historical flavor into their character dialogue, whether by:

sprinkling in the occasional bit of dialect:

            “What do you want with me, Serang Ali?”

            “Just wanchi ask one-two question.”

            “About what?”

            “How Malum Zikri come to Singapore-lah?” (p. 330)

(Amitav Ghosh’s nineteenth-century lascar speech in Flood of Fire.)

or foreign-language word:

            “Show me your hands,” Leofric ordered. I did and he sneered. “You’ll have blisters soon, Earsling.”

            That was his favourite word, earsling. It means arseling. That was me, though he sometimes called me Endwerc, which means a pain in the arse (p. 224)

(Bernard Cornwell scatters Old English words throughout The Last Kingdom.)

or setting-specific words:

            “I met Natan Ketilsson when I was working at Geitaskard.”

            “Where is that?”

            “In Langidalur. It was my sixth farm as a workmaid.” (p. 186)

(Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is full of names, places, and activities reflecting nineteenth-century Iceland.)

Finally, in the interests of avoiding painful “pishtushery”, here are some suggestions for authors:

  • read some primary sources from the era you’re writing in! Then make a list of historical phrases for future reference. Please, please don’t rely on current stereotypes in your genre or vague notions of past-sounding language.
  • use the extended Oxford English Dictionary to check when / how words were used. E.g., ’tis (and its variants ’twas and ’twere) are often sprinkled into medieval-set fiction. Because they irritate me to teeth-gnashing, I looked them up in the OED. Apparently, ’tis and ’twas were far more likely to be used in writing from the 1500s on, and ’twere really only got trundled out in the 1800s. 
  • remember swearing is historically specific. For example, if one wanted offensive words in the Middle Ages, one turned to religion. Forget excreta and fornication, false swearing by God’s bones was the truly abhorrent cuss back then. Check out Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing for some entertaining history, or go to: https://www.medievalists.net/2023/05/medieval-swear-words/
  • dialogue can be unintentionally classist or racist: “proper” speech is determined by those in power and propagated through official language. Non-standard dialogue may imply a speaker is ill-educated, stupid, or inferior in some way. 
  • above all, don’t slow your reader down or confuse them with a deluge of historical lingo (unless you’re writing literary fiction and making a point, à la Paul Kingsnorth). Season speech with a light, authentic touch and have fun!

How about you, dear reader? Tell me your thoughts on dialogue in historical fiction!

Some great suggestions and reminders, Cara. I’m with you on prithee!! It’s so easy to stumble on the matter of dialogue. Best wishes for The Rose and Her Knight. By the way, Cara has some interesting posts on her blog. Here’s one on men’s medieval underwear 🙂

The Rose and Her Knight by Cara Hogarth ~~ Wake up and smell the roses…and manure. A French minstrel knight deceives a thorny English rose in a medieval garden of love.

Do you believe in love at first sight? Vicomte Raf does.
France, 1367. Rafèu, Vicomte Bruniquel, is deeply, insanely in love—and he’s about to meet the lady of his heart for the first time. Unfortunately for him, lovely English widow Eglantine avoids charismatic French knights like the plague. Bitter experience has taught her that love is an illusion. She will not be deceived again, so she bars her castle to all suitors and creates an English garden paradise in detested France.


Lady Eglantine doesn’t believe in love, only lust.
While Eglantine rejects marriage, especially to deceptive French noblemen, she istempted by a darkly-handsome minstrel. Raf enters the castle in the guise of a wandering musician to win his prickly lady’s love, but Eglantine only intends to use him—to sing English songs to her small son and to entertain her in other, more intimate and very temporary ways.

A garden of love under siege…
Unfortunately, Raf’s plans are disrupted when a second and far less subtle suitor appears, one who lays siege not only to Eglantine’s heart but her chateau too. Eglantine finds herself beset on both sides—by a charming French minstrel and a besieging English knight. But will the lady ever surrender?

A steamy medieval romance amidst roses, manure, and soaring castle walls.

You can reach Cara on her website or on Facebook.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY 

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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16 Responses

  1. Thanks, Cara (and M.K.!) for some valuable thoughts on historical dialogue. I DID slog through all of The Wake, perhaps in morbid fascination at the linguistic accomplishment. Not just the dialogue, but the entire book used his purpose-built language to convey pre-conquest life in Britain. After the first 20% or so, it became much easier.

    1. You’ve got more reading stamina than me, Sandy! Do you think I should give The Wake another try?

  2. In my latest dual-time period mystery (The Light in the Garden), I wanted to make sure that the characters in 1726 really sounded different from the (main) characters in 1886. A little research into “How to Speak in 18th Century English” (https://www.theclassroom.com/how-to-speak-18th-century-english-12083381.html) yielded some very useable results! I did put in one little footnote at the beginning that read: “A Word about Thee and Thou …. In the chapters taking place in 1726, the characters use the older style of address: you/ye were used when talking to multiple persons or to a person of a higher status, to show respect. Thee/thou were used among familiars, intimates and to children or “inferiors” (as when Squire Robert addresses Bess and her father). The verb forms ending in -est or -eth were still in use at that time (giveth, hast, etc.) but such usage varied throughout the kingdom, and would die out as the century progressed.”

    Here are a couple of examples of dialogue from both time periods in the book:

    1886: “What have you to conjecture about the incident of the death of the blue bird?” I said, and discerned that John started at the question. Mr. Hesford nodded slowly. “I have thought on it,” he said after a moment. He glanced at John. “Begging your pardon, sir, seeing as how it was your bird and all, I took it to be a warning of some kind, and not just an ill-natured way to get rid of a troublesome creature, again, your pardon, sir.”

    1726: “And don’t thou look the very image of thy Ma,” he said softly. “God bless her for a saint in heaven.” Bess leaned in to put her hand against her father’s grizzled cheek. “May she bless us from heaven,” she said. “It’s hard going without her, ain’t it, Da?” “We do the best we can,” he said gruffly, trying to hide his emotion. “Get on wi’thee then, girl, I don’t recall what I wanted thee for, go on then.”

    I also had some Irish characters in the 1886 period, but I’m Irish so it kind of comes naturally (hee hee).

    1. Interesting take on a dual time period novel, Mary. Most such novels I encounter are partly set in the present; you’ve put a different spin on it. I think the thought you put into the matter – and the research! – will ensure the dialogue sounds authentic. I really like the way you distinguish between time periods by means of dialogue. The phrasing of “Get on wi’thee then, girl,” sounded very natural to me. I wasn’t so keen on the initial “thou” in the 1726 speech, though. Not sure why, as your footnote explanation makes sense of it.

    2. It’s intriguing to see the differences between your 1886 and 1726 dialogue, Mary. Both sound authentic and flow smoothly for the reader. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I’m writing a novel set in Virginia and North Carolina in the 1760, and I’m being very careful not to use any words in the dialogue that weren’t in use at that time. I have a related question: Must I also be careful not to use such words in the narrative? I don’t think very contemporary words should be used in the narrative, but how strict should I be in the narrative? Thank you for any light you can shed on this.

    1. I think it’s far more important to keep the dialogue reflective of the time rather than the narrative. As you say, very contemporary phrasing shouldn’t appear in the narrative, but I think you’d find your writing becoming stilted if you removed absolutely everything that the dictionary decrees anachronistic from the narrative!

      1. Great advice, Cara. Since I’m writing more 20th century novels (WWI and WWII), it’s not as difficult to tune the dialogue and narrative to those times as they aren’t in the distant past.

      2. Thank you, Cara. That sounds like good advice. In all my reading about how to write historical fiction, I’ve never seen anything addressing this aspect of narrative. I appreciate your response to my question.

  4. Hi Janet, I always try to have the narrative “voice” match the time period to keep the flavor of the time, but not strained, of course, I try to keep it simple. It can be jarring to have the non-dialogue sound more modern.

  5. In my mysteries, Violet Paget (aka Vernon Lee) is the narrator for the 1880’s parts, her first person voice, so the “narrative” is always in keeping with the dialogue and description for the time she’s in; in the 1726 version, here’s just a little paragraph that shows how I tried to keep the early 18th-century tone going in the omniscient third person narrative: As the early autumn twilight set in, gentling the heat of the day, the village took on a golden, magical glow—deepened by the Cotswold stone so famous for its sunny color—and it gave every man, woman and child a sheen of glamour. The rougher sports and competitions were over for the day, the last wagonload of corn sheaves had been paraded about the village, and the husks had been distributed for the children and women to make corn dolls, which would find their place on fireplace mantels, blessing the house for the winter until they would be given back to the earth on Ploughing Monday, early in the Spring.

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