Talking History

Talking History

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This essay originally appeared on Peeking Between the Pages:

Every writer of historical fiction struggles with dialogue.  Historical detail requires research, but it’s not terribly difficult to check up on yourself to make sure that the characters are wearing the right clothes and eating the foods appropriate to the time period.  When people talk, though, the words need both to feel accurate and to be readable.  Deciding where to modernize grammar, contractions, and syntax without violating the sense of being in the past is tricky—and there’s no key to doing it right.

When I was writing The Altarpiece, which is set in Tudor England, I had a notion of how people might have actually talked.  I teach the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and I’ve read a lot of letters, legal documents, and literature from the period.  Sometimes the language is surprising—I think of the student in my course on Early English Drama who, when we were acting out The Revenger’s Tragedy, encountered a character who calls his father “dad.”  She stopped our in-class acting with a raised hand.  “Dad?” she asked.  “Did people back then really call their fathers ‘Dad’”?  Well, apparently they did, though it seems startlingly modern to us.  When Hamlet says, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” he’s speaking in a way that’s both deeply philosophical and completely modern.  That is the question, after all, isn’t it?  His uncle Claudius, who’s just taken over the throne, stops in the middle of a long speech about a political enemy and says, “So much for him.”  It’s very modern-sounding, and if it’s acted right, audiences will burst out laughing.  In a more sinister moment, when Othello demands of the villain Iago that he produce “the ocular proof” that Desdemona is “a whore,” audiences are often taken aback by what sounds like language from a recent legal whodunnit.

But readers of Renaissance literature stumble over the contraction “’a” for “he” and syntax like Hotspur’s complaint that a line on a map that gets into his territory “comes me cranking in” to mean “comes moving in on my space.”

Some novelists try to recreate this old diction by sprinkling words like “mayhap” and “’tis” into their dialogue without doing much else to make their characters talk like people from an earlier century.  That’s one solution to the problem, though it seems too easy to me.  Another is to throw historical diction and syntax to the proverbial winds and have characters talk like contemporary people.  Hilary Mantel has chosen this route, and Philippa Gregory does it quite often.  These are two very different writers—Mantel more interested in the nuances of character and Gregory more involved in the broad sweep of consequential events—but they have both gained a wide readership, partly, I think, because their dialogue is very readable.

When I started writing dialogue for historical characters, I was writing poetry, which imposes its own demands on dialogue.  I was taken to task for inverting syntax in a poem about Biddy Early, the so-called Wise Woman of Clare.  Another character said, “Say she’s a witch, / they still will . . . ” and a friend called this “Yoda-speak.”  I defended my poem on the grounds that Yoda talks this way because the Star Wars writers and directors were trying to make him seem mythic through old-fashioned dialogue, but I could definitely see her point.  I couldn’t, in a novel, just mess around with word order and call that historical dialogue.

I tried writing without contractions.  This provided a more formal, removed sound, which to my ear rang a note of something far away in time, but English-speaking people have always used contractions.  Without them, the dialogue sounded stilted and odd, especially after 85,000 words.  And reading it aloud was impossible.  I found myself dropping in contractions—I just couldn’t help it.

Sigh.  I finally decided to take a middle road.  I began to write in fairly natural modern-ish English.  I say modern-ish because I tried to be faithful to certain expressions of the time without overdoing the antiquey-ness.  My characters might say “Forgive me,” but they don’t say “Oh, sorry.”  They could say “Maybe we’ll have rain and be saved from the drought,” but they would never say, “I wish we’d get a downpour, and fast, because the fields look so awful.”  If they say that something is “awesome,” it had better be an event that inspires the kind of admiration usually reserved for God, and the only things that are “epic” are the works of Homer and Virgil.

I do find that when I read from The Altarpiece, I modernize the contractions even more, and I’ve been asked about this.  I explain, as I do to my creative writing students, that listening is in some ways harder than reading.  Listeners don’t get a second chance; they can’t go back and reread for clarity, so if there’s anything that needs explaining, it must be done before the reading begins.  Dialogue goes by quickly, and I add contractions to let listeners comprehend more easily.

That said, I do get frustrated by writers who drop anachronistic words, references, and attitudes into their historical dialogue.  Characters who predate Freud shouldn’t “project” their feelings, and if they are living before Copernicus, they shouldn’t speak trippingly of the earth turning around the sun.  Did historical people understand psychology?  Of course they did—just read any of Wyatt’s sonnets if you doubt it.  Did people understand that the earth was round and not flat?  Yes, they did, and Shakespeare puns on the name of the Globe Theatre frequently to link it to both the earth and the human head (where exactly is Hamlet’s “distracted globe”?).  But neither Hamlet nor his creator would have talked about the heliocentric universe without enormous anxiety, and they wouldn’t have called it “anxiety.”  “Doubt,” perhaps.  “Skepticism,” maybe, or even “sin.”

So how does a writer know when to modernize and when to be strictly authentic?  With clothing, food, medicine, means of travel, and belief rituals, authenticity is absolutely necessary.  How people talk is a different matter.  We inhabit two worlds when we open a piece of historical fiction, and we need a way to let our own time give way to that older one.  Dialogue can provide that way, because it’s individual and flexible, as well as bound in a particular time and place.  It’s the aspect of historical fiction that invites us into the minds and emotions of historical characters—and lets us live, love, suffer, and succeed right along with them.

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