Making your period dialogue sound realistic

It’s clear from the critique feedback that I received recently that I needed to study the language form of children from the 1930’s/40’s.  I was informed that my characters didn’t sound quite like they should.

I was scratching my head and thinking now how was I going to correct this?  I had to make my dialogue sound realistic but not stupid.  I had to make it that people would relate to it easily and not be put off by reading the rest of my story?

So I spoke to my friends and asked them some more questions on how they reckoned I should approach this problem, I emailed published writers and googled for answers.  One obvious choice and recommendation was that I needed to find published books with similar aged characters from my time period and detail down useful bits of language (in a notebook) that they used.  This was so I could pick words out and use these groups of words to make my children sound like children from that era too.  One friend recommended that I should try and write my dialogue in the correct format as I went along but at that point I was wondering if it was just easier to write it in my own voice then go back and edit it to that time period in one go.

By writing down all the dialogue per character from a published book of the time period I could actually see what my characters should sound and act like which helped me consider the use of my own dialogue in my story.  One friend asked me to think about upon editing my writing how compact the authors writing was; how much detail there was in it and how it made me feel upon reading it, would it be possible to delete a word?

At the time I didn’t realise what a useful exercise it was until I wrote down all the dialogue of the classic book that I loved (in the same genre as I was writing in) until I’d actually done it. I’ve learned such a lot. I’ve realised that to me a successful book has lots of dialogue. Dialogue is good as it is showing rather than telling.  I realise now that the dialogue can be altered to fit in with the said time period after the story is written rather than as I write it.  I realised that I could do this at the same time when editing the words to condense the story and make it more effective.  I felt it is best to know my characters first before altering the dialogue to suit, that way I can make effective dialogue easier.

I am drawn to the simple but effective ideas.  A tutor with a PhD in Creative Writing once said to me and others on a writing course; “do not be afraid of trying to copy another writers style for that’s how you improve on your writing skills and become a better writer.”  It’s a dilemma for most writers when writing a piece of historical fiction to make it sound believable and realistic.  It is important that the dialogue sounds right to the masses rather than to a historian or linguist.  We have to make sure that the construction of the dialogue is the best it can be.  It’s clear that when writing historical fiction that you need someone to read through your work and mark off for you where they think that the dialogue just doesn’t sound quite right. 

In more recent times language is similar to our own but the expressions, idioms, phrasing and slang are different for each time period.  Whereas the English language sounded completely different prior to 1550:

It is important to remove any modern slang words or phrases from your writing. Some words are more difficult to assess whether we remove them or not as some words are used without thinking.  Once all the modern terminology is removed then the older dialogue of your time period can be added if need be.

Period dialogue may be added with period slang and phrases for humour but I believe that this should be used with caution and sparingly.  You want your audience to be able to understand what your characters are saying.  It’s also good practice to avoid most idioms and slang and write in a more formal voice using words in full rather than a shortened version of the written word in dialogue.  Such as will not rather than won’t.

Another useful way to introduce period features into your writing is to use foresight.  A way that this can be done is to introduce myths into old rhymes of that time which foretell the future (prophecy).

I was also advised by my writer friends to research into my time period by watching films on Youtube: and to read letters, as well books to get a sense of how people used words.  It was only recently that people used to be much more formal in their writing than in their speech.

Dialogue changes over the years and depending on social background and education.  As a writer you have to develop a good ear for voices and accents.

It is important to make your characters sound different to one another because of their classes.  Be careful not to stereotype your characters as this may offend your readers.  Characterising by using dialogue can be done by giving your characters catch phrases and by varying how wordy, honest and obedient they are.  These items require more consideration when writing a piece of work set back in time.  There is a tendency when writing conflict scenes to contain modern wording, it will have to be stripped out afterwards,formalised and if need be some wording of that period added in.  It’s really useful to get others to critique your work because when you are working so closely with a piece it can be difficult to see the wood from the trees.

So basically the characters age is reflected in their speech by reflecting their actions and personality traits.  This is done by showing how a child would react for their age (behaviour), even if they do sound older.  For example, younger children may question more.

Writers should research speech patterns for their time period and adapt them, especially where swear words are involved, using phrases of the said time period which aren’t distracting or corny.

If you have enjoyed this article then please feel free to share, any comments are most welcome.  🙂

4 thoughts on “Making your period dialogue sound realistic

    • That really is helpful. It’s definitely something I struggle with, especially writing fantasy, where I have to find a happy middle with creativity and relatability for the readers. I’ll try it out. Thank you!

      • Thank you for your lovely message. I’m glad that this blog post was really helpful. I really struggled on this point until I made my own investigations, analysis and research. The downside of this is that it took plenty of time as I had to study books and other written articles. You are most welcome, hopefully this blog will enable you to get past this point quicker than I did because most of the answers to this dilemma are here. Have a lovely day. 🙂

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