re: Use Modern Dialogue for Historical Fiction?

posted 1/19/12

Dear Editor…

In writing an historical fiction novel about an immigrant boy in 1911, how would you handle dialogue—should it be true to the time or more modern for today’s readers?



Dear Roz…

You’re writing dialogue, not a dictionary. Most people prefer accessibility to precise adherence to “the way people really spoke back then.” Alice Hoffman’s popular, highly acclaimed The Dovekeepers is set in Ancient Israel, 70 C.E. No one’s putting up a stink because her dialogue uses modern contractions: “It’s good you don’t want it.” Use time-specific phrases, yes, but even better: inject accessible dialogue with authentic flavor by recreating the way people of 1911 strung their words together—the syntax. Read as many first-hand writings of the time as possible. Train your brain to mimic the cadence and flavor of the syntax and work that rhythm into accessible character confabs.

Happy writing!
The Editor

P.S. For more on this topic, read Dialogue, General fiction
posted by: The Editor
under: Dialogue, General fiction
Comments to "re: Use Modern Dialogue for Historical Fiction?" | Add a Comment
    1. Sharon K Mayhew wrote (on 01/19/12 at 12:57 pm) :

      Great post and timely for me too. Thanks for confirming what I am already doing. 🙂

    2. Carol Riggs wrote (on 01/19/12 at 1:20 pm) :

      Good to know, and a great deal easier! 🙂

    3. The Editor wrote (on 01/19/12 at 1:20 pm) :

      Karen Cushman’s historical fiction (middle grade) always has amazing dialogue. Accessible but with a period flavor . . . and major personality, too. Worth checking out.

      Anyone got other historical fav’s to recommend?

    4. Bill wrote (on 01/19/12 at 2:02 pm) :

      I agree about reading writings from the time. I’ve been going through hand written letters from my grandfather when he was a boy to his mother. Certain phrases sound modern, but then suddenly it’s different. Different cadence, different word choice, different level of formality. It gives a flavor for the era. So, the suggestion for you to do the same is great advice. I think you have the added challenge of this character being an immigrant. There could be other language issues present depending on where he/she is from. Something to consider. Best of luck.

    5. kathy stemke wrote (on 01/19/12 at 2:34 pm) :

      My historical fiction is set in 1940’s Birkenhea, England. I’m using a scouser accent and period phrases in my dialougue.

    6. Natasha Yim wrote (on 01/19/12 at 3:05 pm) :

      Very timely post, Deborah. I’m working on a historical fiction set in China in 1809, so getting the feel of the dialogue and time period right is important. My challenge is also trying to convey the cadence and phrasing of someone from a different culture. When I’m stuck, I try to listen to it in my head in Chinese, but then translating that onto the page in English is no easy task!

      Anyone who’s interested in great language and dialogue for historical fiction should read L.A. Meyer’s “Bloody Jack” series. The protagonist is an English girl living in the early 1800s. He does a great job of portraying the time period in the speech patterns and idioms that the characters use, but yet is modernized enough that it’s easily understandable.

    7. The Editor wrote (on 01/19/12 at 4:25 pm) :

      I love the Bloody Jack series. Meyer’s work with the language and speech patterns is great. Great recommendation, Natasha.

    8. Christine wrote (on 01/26/12 at 7:46 am) :

      I agree that people don’t want a hard read, words & phrases they can’t follow–though a few words thrown in (with PS explanation) makes for interest.
      What I don’t like to see is modern slang thrown back into past generations. I.e., when I was young only manufacturers had heard of “stress”, so it grates on me to hear a 1910 character say “I’m stressed out about it.”
      I like period names, too, not trendy new names like Lacey, when I read historical romances from the 1800s. Check with the Dept of Vital Statistics.

    9. The Editor wrote (on 01/26/12 at 8:24 am) :

      Great points, Christine.