By Bonnie Stanard
The 1670s in France is the setting for a story I’m working on about a traveling troupe of actors. As soon as a conversation came up, I had to ask myself, how did people talk in Renaissance France? Obviously, the writing should remind the reader the story takes place over 300 years ago. And in France.
After much consideration, I’ve decided to signal the time with early English expressions and the place with a sprinkling of French words. Not ideal, I know. But what to do? If you’re thinking I should simply move the story to England, that introduces a different problem. In England, unlike France, acting was a male profession. The first recorded performance of a female playing a role on the English stage is December 1660, too close for comfort. And as far as I’m concerned, no women, no story.
Some writers can produce books with almost no dialogue. John Banville, Charles Frazier, and IsabelleAllende come to mind. For most of us, dialogue is a device whereby we advance the plot, elevate tension, or reveal motive. The conversations we give our characters differentiate their personalities. You can get more suggestions about how to write dialogue than you’ll ever need from workshops as well as online. I’ll only say that the writer of “How are you?” or “What’s up?” or “Hello” is digging a grave.
Carefully chosen dialect reminds readers about where and when the story is unfolding. In some cases it delineates social status. Some editors go to the extreme in warning us against using dialect. Obviously Anthony Burgess ignored them and wrote the best-selling A Clockwork Orange with a patois so dense some of us could only understand the audio version.
So, when to use dialect and how often? Too much and the story drags. Too little and it becomes generic contemporary writing. If you will, somewhere between “By my trowth, thou dost make the millstone seem as a feather what widst thy lard-bloated footfall” and “You are fat.”
Much of my time lately has been devoted to developing a lexicon of dated English words and expressions. Researching colloquial language is not as easy as getting other background information, such as the nature of housing, clothing, social circumstances, and political environment. This information can usually be found in recorded history. Most books of this sort are available fromAbe Books.
However, history books don’t reveal how people talked at the time. Shakespeare’s plays have probably demonstrated more about dated colloquial English than any other source. I have a flip-card booklet with Shakespeare’s insults, which makes for fun reading (Thou Spleeny Swag-Bellied Miscreant).
I’ve added a number of expressions to my lexicon from Margaret Butler’s historical fiction novel, Lion of England, which brings to life Henry II in the 12th Century. This book is a great example of how language makes a story real to its time. A good reference book, English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, gives you lists of words in use by the century of its appearance. Then there are online sources such as Elizabethan Slang and Elizabethan greetings.
They knew how to insult back then—milksop, dunderhead, whey face, toadeater, or rank-scented, lumpish prig. I can get so carried away with language that my lexicon grows at the expense of my story.