An eighteenth century hero wouldn’t say everything’s groovy nor would a modern day heroine likely be described as missish. So if you’re writing historical fiction, how do you convey a sense of period to your reader? Author Nicola Cornick joins us today and tells us how.
Welcome to RU, Nicola!
“The past is a foreign country,” LP Hartley wrote in The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.” They also talked differently in the past. If we had a time machine and went back to around 1400 we would probably be able to understand spoken English, assuming we weren’t in a region of the country where there was a strong local accent. Much earlier than Chaucer’s time and we would be struggling to recognise the words in common usage.
One of the challenges for the historical author is writing dialogue that is intelligible to the modern reader whilst at the same time conveying a sense of the period. Some authors don’t attempt to do this. They consciously write a historical novel in modern language. Deliberate anachronisms of language can be very effective as long as the reader is not expecting authentic dialogue and doesn’t find it jarring to have a Regency heroine saying “ok” for example. For those authors who do prefer to be historically accurate with language, though, the challenge is to find the balance between authenticity and a dialogue that sounds realistic and flows naturally. Writing dialogue in any time period is an art in itself; each character will have a particular way of speaking, they need to sound like real people with their individual cadences and mannerisms and the dialogue should not be stilted and should always move the story along. Use of dialogue is one of the ways in which an author can establish a historical background but this has to be done very subtly. It should never be used as a way to dump lots of historical information. Many is the time I have been so interested in my research that I have had the hero of my novel giving a long and probably-not-very fascinating explanation about some obscure bit of history. On re-reading this always sounds like a history textbook and not something that should be in the dialogue. Information can be exchanged in conversation, of course, but succinctly rather than long rambling discourses (unless your character is a prosy bore who wastes no time in lecturing the company on the finer points of architecture, for example.)
How Do I Love Thee?
Well, probably not with a “thee” for a start. These days, using the words “thee” and “thou” in conversation, even if it is authentic, sounds mannered and old-fashioned. Archaic language should be used very sparingly indeed to avoid your dialogue sounding stilted. On the other hand there are plenty of words that historical authors frequently get chastised for using because some readers assume that they are too modern. A few examples are “darling” (900 AD), “heartbreak” which was in use by 1400, “honey” as a term of endearment, in use by 1470, and “smooch” (1585).
The Old Versus The New
Dialogue in a contemporary romance can be more direct and less formal than in a historical. People in the modern day can express how they feel very clearly, although they may choose not to do so. The manners and mores of a historical era governed how people in that age would both speak and behave. In a historical the dialogue is one of the most powerful tools to use, both to create the setting, as I mentioned above, but also to establish the characters and the relationship between them. The more formal language of the historical can create the perfect atmosphere if well written. And make no mistake – no holds barred contemporaries with the heroes and heroines telling each other how much they want each other may be hot but there is nothing sexier than the witty, verbal sparring that can take place between hero and heroine in a Regency romance.
Here is an example from one of my own books:
“You are not as indifferent to me as you pretend,” he said. He saw the colour come into Deborah’s cheeks then and thought it a mixture of indignation and guilt.
“You are mistaken,” she said. “I do not think so.”
“You are conceited.”
“Possibly. That still does not prove that you dislike me.”
“I dislike you intensely.”
“And that does not prove that you are not attracted to me.” Richard threw up a hand. “Come, Mrs Stratton, admit the truth…” (Nicola Cornick, One Night of Scandal)
In the extract below the dialogue conveys the formal speech of the seventeenth century but also gives a very good impression of how the hero breaks down the barriers of convention between himself and the heroine.
There was silence as the horses picked an unhurried way. Master Hilliard was looking at her thoughtfully. “Yet Master Miles,” he said suddenly, “seemed a very tolerable fellow. Do you find him so?”
Margery’s mind became alert. She had thought that this was less casual than it seemed; he was perhaps probing and she was quick to assure him. “I find him likeable,” she said. Then she pointed up the hill towards Wheathead. “There’s a girl yonder who’s my good friend and finds him more than likeable.”
“Ah!” he seemed relieved. “And he returns that good sentiment?”
“Yes, though that’s a confidence.”
“A safe one, I assure you, madam. He is perhaps to be envied.”
“In that, yes. But to live with such a mother? I’ve no envy for that.”
“Nor I.” He hesitated again. “Yet one more thing I could envy him.”
“His easy speech with you, where I must be formal – as you perceive, madam.”
Margery laughed openly. She was in friendly humour with him now. “You may have the like privilege if you wish it,” she told him. “I hereby absolve you from all formality.”
His face took on a broad grin. “Margery, the day improves. Whither do we ride?” (Robert Neill, Mist over Pendle)
Of course there is always going to be the exception to the rule – the hoyden heroine who cares nothing for convention or the elderly dowager who speaks her mind with scathing frankness. Yet that is the joy of historical dialogue; you can take the rules of more formal discourse and play with them, be witty, daring, push the boundaries yet keep that structure and work within it. As is the case with all dialogue, you need to remember that your characters are talking to each other and not directly to the reader. Give them personal speech patterns, rhythm and cadence. In real life people tend to talk over one another, stop in the middle of a sentence, interrupt, or sometimes forget what they are saying if they get distracted. This would have happened in 1800 just as it does now, but there was probably more formal courtesy and less interrupting as a result of the manners of the period. You can still put some of this into your dialogue, though. It helps to make your characters feel real.
Conflict and Emotion
There is nothing quite like dialogue for keeping the pace and the emotional temperature of a book high. Dialogue is also a powerful tool for building emotion and intensifying conflict in a way that is more immediate and raw than it would be if merely described in prose.
Even the most proper Regency lord can be driven to an emotional outburst: “Hell’s teeth, Georgie!” He exploded. “You’re my wife! You’ll sleep where you slept last night! Where you belong – in my bed, of course!” (Elizabeth Rolls, The Prodigal Bride)
And don’t forget to incorporate pauses and breaks, especially in a love scene or where your characters are moved by strong emotion. No one who is overcome by passion will be speaking in perfect, coherent sentences! To craft good dialogue you need to listen to how people speak, their vocabulary and the patterns of words they use. This can be as helpful to the historical author as it is to the contemporary one since the principle of people using different expressions and mannerisms hasn’t changed even if the words used have. The best historical dialogue subtly sets the scene whilst being contemporary and fast-paced enough to suit the modern reader. It’s a tricky balance but a winning one.
How do you feel about dialogue in historical fiction? Do you like it to sound true to the era or to be a judicious mix of the old and the new? How do you feel about the use of old-fashioned words like “thee” and “thou”? And have you ever read and enjoyed a historical novel with very modern dialogue?
Join us on Wednesday, May 14th, when author Lesann Berry presents: Using Different Tools to Explore New Directions in Your Writing.
Here’s a blurb from Nicola’s latest book, ONE NIGHT WITH THE LAIRD 
A night of no return…
Lady Mairi MacLeod is young and beautiful, and fashionable Edinburgh’s most flirtatious hostess. But within the merry widow beats a grieving heart. Desperately seeking to forget, she spends one night with Jack Rutherford, an accomplished rake.
A strong protector…
When Mairi is threatened by blackmail, Jack is the only man who can help her. As they work together to uncover where the danger lies, their attraction reignites. But can one night of passion lead to a lifetime of love?
Bio: International bestselling author Nicola Cornick  writes historical romance for HQN Books and time slip romance for MIRA UK. She became fascinated with history when she was a child, and spent hours poring over historical novels and watching costume drama. She studied history at university and wrote her master’s thesis on heroes. Nicola also acts as a historical advisor for television and radio. In her spare time she works as a guide in a 17th century mansion. Visit her website , or find her on Twitter  and Facebook .
- Weekly Lecture Schedule – May 12th to May 16th 
- From Hot Starts to Famous Last Words – The importance of a great first line and an awesome ending for your book by Nicola Cornick 
- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie 
- A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue with Maria McKenzie 
- Weekly Lecture Schedule Dec 9-14