Monday, August 13, 2012

Period Dialogue and Manners -- Writing tip.

FOR A GOOD READ:  Tabitha Black does not believe in the supernatural even though for decades past her ancestors were gifted with clairvoyancy. 

Question: I recently completed a Historical Romance that takes place in 1861, the first year of the Civil War. People in my writer's group told me that I need to study the time period better because the dialogue and mannerisms of my characters do not fit the time period, therefore it is not accurate enough to be believable for the Civil War.

I have done my research, revised many times, and they continue to tell me the same things. Do you have anything that could help me perfect my characters's mannerisms and their dialogue for that period? Any help would be greatly appreciated!
Answer:  First be careful not to use words that are "too modern" in feel. For instance, the word "okay" did not come into general use until 1880 or later. Nobody should say Okay in the Civil War, they should say, "all right" or "I agree" or "Yes." The Oxford English Dictionary (while it has UK spelling) will tell you when a word was first commonly used. There's a free one in every Kindle.

People spoke and acted more formally then. Except for family or among children, they didn't call one another by their first names unless invited to. Women named their husbands as Mr. They didn't take someone's hand in public, either, unless they were very daring. 

Warning: Do NOT overdo dialect, but in dialogue DO avoid using many contractions unless they are old time ones, like shan't, for shall not instead of can't. Use dated slang as well. If something is "unbelievable" today, it probably was a "lollapalooza" back then. If a guy is "hot" today, he was handsome or a  "likely-looking young man" back then. Girls were "fair" not pretty.  It only takes a few of them scattered about.

Language was more formal. Profanity was used among soldiers, but never in polite society. Victoria was Queen in England, but her manners had been adopted in America and girls (and even pianos) had limbs instead of legs.  Okay, don't get ridiculous with this, but be careful how folks talk, and what words they choose. Be sure to use dialect, lang and even swearing appropriate to the mores of the time period.

Think about the costume for more than how it looked. Don't have your heroine running blythely across a field in hoop-skirts. Don't have her just flop down in a chair, either. Sitting was carefully done, or the hoop popped up and hit you in the nose (a fact I learned from experience in 1976), and running in stays and hoops was quite impossible, though it could be managed in a riding  habit where more freedom of movement was possible. Only the upper classes wore those kinds of costume. Working class women didn't wear  hoops, except to a dance.  Don't have peasants working shirtless in the field. They wore long-sleeved shirts out there, not only for protection from sunburn, but because a long-sleeved shirt soaking wet is cooler than being shirtless.

Be careful of tools, too. A tire iron and a crow bar are the same tool, but "tire irons" came in with automobiles. Women used "flat irons" and heated them on the stove, changing them, as the iron cooled for a hotter one. A man would shave with a straight razor.

People had sex during the Victorian era, OR there would have been no succeeding generations. BUT they didn't talk about it. Women went to their marriage beds with barely any knowledge of what to expect, though there were "code" words used by married folks to one another now and then, few hints were given the innorcent younger generation. Unless a girl lived on a farm that would have abounded in demonstrations of cattle and horse breeding and so on she was kept deliberately ignorant of the "facts of life."

The richer, more gently-reared, a young woman was, the more ignorant. For instance, when the Governor of Tennessee married a sweet young southern belle from an excellent family, she fled his home the following morning and refused to cohabit with him ever again! She never told her father and brothers exactly what he had done to her, only that it was "disgusting!" 

Because of this incident, he gave up his presidential ambitions and fled the state of Tennessee, removed himself to Texas, where he took another wife (no complaints THERE!) and eventually became the first president of the Lone Star Republic.

In those days, a sponge soaked in vinegar was widely used as a contraceptive. Unless another pregnancy might cost her life, it was against the law for doctors to tell this to women, though lower class women were sometimes quite aware of it. Unmarried women were expected to remain chaste, but when neighbors spoke of a "vinegary old maid," they were NOT referring to her manners. 

When my friend, Diana Gabaldon, wrote her Outlander series she made many of her characters Scots. There is no dialect more difficult to reproduce than that of Scotland, and Robert Louis Stevenson notwithstanding, overuse of the dialect words and esoteric scots terminology for things can certainly be tedious to modern readers.  To help with Scots, Diana listened to folk music, both in English and Gaelic. She paid attention to the rhythm of the language and it is the rhythm of the speech that differentiates her characters from one another. She avoided using too many apostrophes in place of missing letters. Yet the Scots not only spoke differently than the English characters, the high-class Scots spoke differently from the lower-class ones.

You might Google "Civil War Letters" and read some of those for ideas on how folks might have expressed themselves at the time.

That's about all I can think of right now. Hope it helps.

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