History is full of incredibly powerful orators — for good and ill: Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst, Aung San Suu Kyi. If you take the time to listen to these people from all over the world and across different time periods, you’ll see they all have their own distinct sounds. And this is true of everyone, not just famous speech makers.
No matter what perspective or point of view you’re writing from, it’s the dialogue and inner monologues of your characters that tell your story. If you get that wrong, does it really matter what else you’ve done right?
So, to sure your characters have the right sound for wherever and whenever you’ve set them, you really have to get to grips with how people spoke during this time and in the region they live. To get that, we have a small thing called a primary source: material created at the time, from the place, and by the people.
Language through history
Language is an evolving beast. Every interaction we have with people has the power to change the words we use, how we use them, and even their very meaning. So, imagine how this has accumulated throughout history? Just pick up Wicked Words by Terry Deary and you’ll learn all about the evolution of the English Language. (Honestly, as a whole, Horrible Histories is a fantastic place to start with any historic research.)
So, it’s incredibly important to do your research around the type of language used in the time period you’re story takes place, and to understand where that language came from and who used it.
Medieval manuscripts and pamphlets
For those of you writing historic fiction set in the medieval period or earlier, research can get a little trickier. The earliest newspapers and pamphlets in Europe, for example, were handwritten. However, I am here to help.
Subject matter is a key issue. Because it took an incredible amount of time and skill to produce well, anything, a lot of the material up to about 16th century (and, to be honest, after as well), was religious tracts and political pamphlets. The National Library of Scotland have a select few of these available for viewing.
There are pretty decent caches of gorgeous medieval manuscripts, though. The British Library has a pretty cool medieval manuscripts blog. The V&A Museum has a collection of illuminated manuscripts, and the Morgan Library and Museum has images of medieval and renaissance manuscripts. If you’re looking for a broader view of medieval print, though, the Free Library of Philadelphia has a whole host of links for you to explore.
By far my favourite resource, though, is the Digital Bodleian collection of Western Medieval manuscripts. Over 500 of the 2500 manuscripts in the collection have been fully digitised and you can explore images for all the rest. For those Witcher fans out there, they have a fully digitised Bestiary from 1511. Other topics covered include mathematics, science, and poetry.
Flugschriften Online has about 100,000 German and Latin pamphlets printed in the Holy Roman Empire. I haven’t used this resource too much, but I just took a look and this seriously has the potential to derail my whole day. The things I do for you all.
But these kinds of sources raise a very particular problem: language! If you are writing a story set in a country where you don’t speak the language, and you’re doing your research using primary sources, you really might want to hire the services of a translator — or see if some translation has already been done! Translation and Literature is a decent journal to start from.
If you want to learn a whole hell of a lot about early pamphlets, you can read Joad Raymond’s Pamphlets and pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain — for free!
But then came the Gutenberg Press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450.
Now, the Gutenberg Press wasn’t the first means of producing printed text. No, the oldest known printed text came from China, in the first millennium AD. Then, in 1297, magistrate Wang Chen improved the accuracy, speed and efficiency of his typesetting process.
But Gutenberg’s press which used metal molds over woodpress, specialised inks, and flattened printing paper, spread throughout Europe and massively improved the distribution of the written word and knowledge.
Also, if you haven’t already gotten all up in Project Gutenberg for a library of over 60,000 free e-books, where have you been?!
Newspapers are a great source of language and linguistics, especially if your story is set in what we call “modern” history (from about the 17th century, though it depends which historian you ask).
The British Newspaper Archive is an easy-to-use database of British and Irish newspapers. It is a paid for service, though (they currently have a 30% off deal and prices start at £6.67 per month — and no, I’ve not been paid to include this). Its filters are super handy — date, country, region, and so on. The archives start from about 1700, so it covers a good period of history.
Meanwhile, my beloved National Library of Scotland has hundreds and hundreds of newspapers in their archives. It includes UK newspapers, ProQuest’s historical Black newspapers collection, the Economist, the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Burney newspaper collection, and so many others. Some of these you can access online, some of them require on site access, but it’s a great starting point for anyone looking for information on where to start.
For our American friends, I found this handy wee list as a starter for ten for online newspaper archives.
For readers sadly not in Scotland, The National Archives in Kew have created a brilliant guide for finding newspaper archives, digitised and otherwise.
On another note, let’s talk actual, physical libraries and archives, for a sec. They are one of our most grossly underused resources — both the records themselves and the immensely knowledgeable staff who work with them.
Sometimes these will comprise of physical copies of the newspaper, but more often than not, they’re held on microfiche, or microfilm, or microform… Essentially, you sit at a desk and flick through the film that a newspaper has been recorded onto (often part of a much larger collection — be prepared for breaks!).
The British Library have some advice for searching for resources held in this format. UCLA has a list of indexes and sources of microfilm, and the Mitchell Library in Glasgow holds their microfiche on Level 5, if you want to know. Ah, the time I spent on Level 5. Sigh.
Just because your character lived in the time of the printing press, doesn’t mean they had access to it. In history, only certain walks of life, meaning a lot of history from other voices is harder to get to. ‘Filtering’ is a big issue in historical research.
Historian David Cressy estimated that around 30% of men and 10% of women were fully literate in seventeenth-century England, and most of these were in the wealthier and landed classes (though this doesn’t account for an ability to read or write a little, which you can read about in this brilliant blog by Mark Hailwood).
So, if your character isn’t one of these select few, newspapers, books, pamphlets and other printed material won’t offer the best reflection of how they spoke. But do not under any circumstances mistake illiteracy for ignorance, apathy or a lack of intelligence. Remember, it was the working classes who mobilised an entire section of British society and campaigned for (and won!) workers’ rights, and forever changed employment law.
Another absolutely brilliant feature of libraries and archives, is that they often contain other sources of historic dialogue. If you’re particularly lucky, you’ll find records of interviews or recordings of oral histories. Usually these are attached to the records of a history or community project, so get to know any local history groups focusing on your time period or any of the historic themes in your story.
For example, the Museum of Jewish Heritage has an extensive oral history collection of holocaust experiences which requires permission to access. The British Library has a smaller but no less significant collection of Jewish spoken experiences available online.
For me, I stumbled across an absolute gem in the local library of Shotts, North Lanarkshire whilst researching Victorian, Edwardian and Interwar mental hospitals. The local history group had interviewed former staff from the local institution, Hartwood Hospital (1895–1995). And I got to read their first-hand accounts of life there for nurses, porters, and other staff. (Note: if you want to access medical records, in the UK these are protected and you have to apply for permission to view records up to 100 years old.)
UC Santa Cruz have a good introduction, guide and selected collection for oral history on their university library website. The British Library also has a good oral history collections guide for anyone UK based looking for a good starting point. The Oral History Society offers advice and training on capturing oral histories. The Scottish Oral History Centre holds an archive of oral histories they’ve recorded and have downloadable forms and also run events and training.
Other handy tips for writing believable dialogue
Read your dialogue aloud. This is absolutely essential. You will not know how the dialogue flows unless you read it aloud. If you’re working with a particular accent, see if you can’t find someone online willing to try out a few sentences for you. There are tons of writers forums where you could go for help.
Avoid stereotypes. We do this when we’re writing characters from another culture, nationality, or even socio-economic background than ourselves. Most of the time we don’t even know we’re doing it, but to those readers it will be painfully obvious. Do not rely on media representations of these people to prop up your character. Do your own research, talk to people if you can, and always get someone to check over your dialogue. NY Book Editors have written a good blog on cliched characters that’s worth a quick read.
On that note: Absolutely. 100%. Be. Prepared. To. Accept. Criticism. And most importantly, act upon it.
Be sparse with the verbs. You don’t need to put ‘said’, ‘shouted’, ‘exclaimed’ and so on after every piece of dialogue it completely disrupts the flow and the interactions and relationships between characters. If you’ve written it well, your readers will be able to follow the conversation. Helping Writers Become Authors covers striking this balance pretty well in their blog.
Same goes for adverbs, to be honest. The man, the master, Stephen King once said “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Now I have definitely committed this sin in my own writing and it’s an infuriatingly difficult habit to break. But I’ll let you read all about that from the man himself.
And that’s it! I hope these tips and resources are useful, and would love to hear how you’ve found writing historic dialogue.