Dialog in Historical Fiction

Last month, I presented a session on “The Ten Commandments of Writing Historical Fiction” at the Summer Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (Many thanks to the readers of this blog who gave me suggestions for a tenth commandment—“nine commandments” doesn’t have the right ring to it!) The session was very well received, and I got great questions and comments.

Then someone asked how to make dialog sound authentic.

I never know what to say to this, because truly, there are as many answers as there are historical novels—or at least as many as there are historical novelists. For archaic language, there’s Howard Pyle’s classic Otto of the Silver Hand:

“Potstausand!” he cried; “art thou gone out of thy head to let thy wits run upon such things as this of which thou talkest to me?”

(Please note that this example of speaking forsoothly comes from lips of a swineherd.)

I loved that book as a child. I still remember episodes, scenes, characters, even though I last read it more than forty years ago. But that kind of dialog would seem old-fashioned and silly today.

Or an author could go to the other extreme and use contemporary idiom, as Barry Unsworth did in Songs of the Kings:

“They must have known he had a screw loose

“That’s the sort of thing that is bound to look impressive on a person’s CV

“[I]f he thinks you can fight a war without collateral damage, he’s totally mistaken”

This works for me, but I think you have to be as brilliant a writer as Unsworth to carry it off, and even then it will bother a lot of readers (take a look at the Amazon reviews!).

An author might choose the middle ground that worked for T. H. White in The Once and Future King, where the majority of speech is in a modern-sounding idiom but without Unsworth’s deliberate neologisms, except when Merlyn travels to the present. White uses archaic language only occasionally, in scenes of great emotion or portent, sometimes quoting Mallory directly.

“[Arthur] spoke in the old-fashioned talk, and said with a full voice: ‘Sir, grant mercy of your great travail that ye have had this day for me and for my Queen.’ Guenever, behind his smiling loving face, was sobbing as if her heart would burst.”


“‘Oh, well,” said Kay, ‘I bet the old man caught it for him.’
“‘Kay,’ said Merlyn, suddenly terrible, ‘thou wast ever a proud and ill-tongued speaker, and a misfortunate one. Thy sorrow will come from thine own mouth.’”

So I don’t know what to say when asked that question except to fall back on reader expectations, personal style, and voice. If you want your dialog—or any other part of the text—to recall in its vocabulary, rhythm, syntax, and grammar the time where your story is set, the best I can suggest is immersing yourself in the speech patterns of the era (when possible—I wasn’t about to pattern my characters’ speech in King of Ithaka on Iron-Age Greek, much less on Linear B in Dark of the Moon!). I had fun coming up with phrases to avoid anachronisms, though. In Dark of the Moon, I couldn’t say someone was as curious as a cat because cats hadn’t come to Greece yet. So I said she was as curious as a mouse. Instead of “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in King of Ithaka, I said “the fish that broke the pelican’s beak.”

I’d love your examples of dialog in historical fiction—both good and bad. Forsooth.


Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and The Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). She lives in Nashville, TN, where until recently she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University. Visit her website and her blog.

  • Lauren Cocilova

    One example of bad sticks in my craw particularly: “All That Lives” by Melissa Sanders-Self. It’s a novel about the Tennessee Bell Witch. I’ll copy what I wrote in my GoodReads review at the time: “Absolutely
    dreadful. I very rarely do not finish a book, but this one I literally
    threw down in disgust. The writing was poor, the dialogue felt contrived
    (I have read books written during the period in which this was based
    and no one talked the way these characters talk) and worst of all about
    halfway through the book I came across I scene where the “spirit” was
    taunting John Bell (who had only ever been called “John” up to this point, I believe) and said (and I quote): “All work and no play makes
    Jack a dull boy.”
    What? WHAT? Are you kidding me? How does something like this get past a publisher?”

    • Tracy Barrett

      Too bad that such an interesting story was ruined by poor writing! I live in Tennessee (and the Witch’s encounter with Andrew Jackson took place in the backyard of a friend of mine in Adams, TN) and know that it could have made a terrific novel.
      And I can see why the use of that saying would stick in your craw. Although it had been around for centuries before the Bell Witch’s time, it would inevitably call The Shining to mind!

      • Lauren Cocilova

        Agreed -I was very hopeful when I started reading it, but it just had no redeeming qualities. Wouldn’t stop me from trying another Bell Witch book, but sure stopped me in my tracks with that one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nancy.marie.brown Nancy Marie Brown

    I was just about to complain about someone being “scared shitless” in a C.J. Sansom Tudor mystery, but now you have me wondering if it was done on purpose. Hadn’t noticed that about Barry Unsworth, who has written some of my favorite novels. I must be too deeply involved when reading his books.

    • Tracy Barrett

      As far as I know, that’s the only book where Unsworth uses deliberately anachronistic language, although I too get so caught up that it might be in his other works and I just didn’t notice it.

      A problem with an expression like “scared shitless” is that it’s possible that people in the Tudor era said something like it, but it *sounds* modern, just like the “All work and no play” proverb cited by Lauren. I once saw a paragraph using words in common use in the Victorian era, but it looked completely modern and anachronistic and would be awful in a novel set in that time–as I recall, “computer” meant something like “accountant” then, “car” was in use not only for “chariot” but also for some other kind of vehicle, etc.

      (Just looked up “shitless” in the OED; first appeared 1924. Oh well. The point is still the same!)