Dialogue is something that can make or break a historical romance novel. The characters are the backbone of the story and the way they communicate is how the reader determines who that character really is. If the author has done the research and incorporated the right amount of historical accuracy into the dialogue as part of the characterization process, the reader will love the author. If they have not, or have been so historically accurate that the dialogue is offensive, the reader will most likely never look at that author’s work again.
Researching for writing historical dialogue
Reading articles, letters, and books written in a specific time period is one of the best ways to study dialogue and speech patterns. First-hand accounts of events in letters to loved ones are always my first choice. Some excellent websites with these kinds of documents are:
1. Personal Narratives From the Virtual Jamestown Project 1575-1705: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin...rowse?id=J1006
2. Dictionary of Victorian London: http://www.victorianlondon.org/
3. Internet History Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.asp
4. Eyewitness to History: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com
In addition to these resources, there are a number of books available that provide first-hand accounts of specified time periods.
Incorporating history into a manuscript
The key is to infuse enough historical accuracy to make the dialogue believable without overdoing it. Going too far will normally either confuse the reader or bore them to tears. The last thing most readers want is to open a book that is nothing but true to life Scottish brogue from medieval times. The idea is to give the readers a sense of the time period. Overdoing the accuracy of dialogue often results in all of the characters sounding exactly alike instead of being developed in dialogue as separate characters. When choosing which splash of historical dialogue to infuse, choose only one or two words that are easily understood to readers.
An example of too much in the dialogue is: “Come ben the hoos and warm yourself. Tis not a braw day to walk up the brae without a brat!”
Yeah, readers won’t even try to decipher. They’ll skip over your dialogue as if it were an unimportant detail and pick up reading where they understand what they are reading. Even those of us who know Come ben the hoos means come in the house, braw means nice, and a brat is a woolen cloth worn over the clothes like a cloak will still have to stop when reading the line because it requires too much to pick apart and translate to keep us reading along. So, when it comes to historically accurate dialogue, less is best.
Historically Correct vs. Politically Correct.
The best example of opting not to write historically correct speech patterns in a historical romance is the antebellum south. For some genres, the writer can get away with using the historically correct dialogue but for the most part, it just doesn’t work for romance. Without meaning to, those that have tried writing this time period and failed, did so because their characters became stereotypes that were offensive.
Just as the hero of the story can’t be the plantation owner slipping off to the slave quarters to have a romp with one of the slaves because it makes him more villain in the reader’s mind no matter how accurate to time it might be, the heroine shouldn’t be an uneducated African American slave that is obligated to say “Yes, Masta” when he does slip into her bed. It’s gross and offensive and a sure fire way to have readers never buy a book with that author’s name on it again. And it’ll only take one bad review to expose the stereotyping in a book to ruin any chance of it becoming a best seller.