The history mystery

Old World Map 1

Paula’s Post #69 — When I was in high school, and a wee nerdy, I read quite a few biographies and historical novels. For fun.

I always found something unexpected, something delightful in getting my ‘history’ lessons through fiction. So much did I enjoy this experience, I sort of specialized in ‘cross-over’ courses when I moved onto college, signing up for such esoteric classes as ‘20th Century European History Through Film‘. Yes, you guessed it, we watched a lot of movies, including The Battleship Potemkin, (I still remember that chilling scene on the Odessa steps); Metropolis, Der blaue Engel, and Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, to name just a few.

On a roll, the next quarter I signed up for American History Through Literature, where, well, we read a lot of novels and biographies. Books intended to give us a taste for the true American experience. I doubt I would have ever read Theodore Dreiser’s classic, Sister Carrie, were it not for that course; I know I would not have read Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules, the stark antithesis to Little House on the Prairie. Published in 1935, the book recounts the harsh life experienced by Sandoz’s parents in the Nebraska Platte country.

Old Jules, was completed in 1933. The book would be rejected, at least once, by every major publisher in the United States. Sandoz gave up writing, burning over seventy of her manuscripts. Malnourished and in poor health, she moved from the University of Nebraska, at Lincoln, back to the Sandhills and lived with her mother. Eventually, she returned to Lincoln and her writing, including revising and re-submitting Old Jules.

Before this work could be published, however, she would begin the long-standing battle with editors over the right to retain her distinctive Western idioms rather than use the standardized English her editors demanded.

So, you ask, what is the ‘mystery’ in this weeks blog post title. Well, I’m not absolutely certain, but looking back since the inception of this 5writers blog, I’m not sure anyone has done much ‘blogging’ about historical fiction.

And that’s a mystery to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t read in this genre exclusively, or even for the majority of my leisure reading, (my usual indulgence is crime fiction). But in my past I’ve slogged through all of Dorothy Dunnett’s eight volume House of Nicolo saga and most of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (though I suspect purists may protest that the latter is more accurately classified in the time-travel romance sub-genre.


The point is I enjoyed learning about the Jacobite risings in Gabaldon’s stories as much as I enjoyed discovering Polynesian history through Michener’s epic Hawaii and British history through Edward Rutherford’s weighty novels Sarum and Londinium.

And lets not forget the historical mystery novelists such as those penned by perennial Surrey International Writers’ Festival panelist, the wonderful Anne Perry.

Admittedly, I guess I’m still a wee bit nerdy when it comes to loving historical novels and sInce I’m on a roll with true confessions, I also admit I not only love reading these novels, I like writing novels with a historical twist. A research geek, I just can’t resist ferreting out arcane facts and period details, as fellow 5writer Helga and I did when we penned our culinary history/mystery, Taste of the Past.

So I’m surprised we, as a group, have done so little blogging about historical fiction. My 5writer colleague Joe is no slouch when it comes to history. Though his latest book is an epic young adult fantasy novel, his knowledge of history is evident in the attention to detail he displays when describing the clothes and weapons and even mannerisms of the characters who populate his novels. Ditto for my 5writer colleague Helga, who has known the joy and frustration of researching history for her Cold War era novels.

Which brings me to the question du jour. When writing historical fiction, where do you fall on the issue of using ‘dialect’, the often colorful, often obscure (incomprehensible) regional speech patterns of native speakers of English?

A week or so ago, I had this very conversation with a dear friend of mine. Though my friend is now in her mid-eighties, she studied comparative literature in university and is the member of several book groups (and has been for decades). She not only is familiar with the great literary works of the world, she is just as familiar with the more obscure literary novels of the this century and the last. She reads a lot.

So when I told her I was pondering the prospect of writing a novel set in the mid-eighteenth century, on the Isle of Skye, I confessed I found the prospect of writing dialogue in old Scots dialect more than a little daunting.

“Don’t”, she said.

Quick as that.

“Just write it in standard English.”

We discussed this at length and in the end she agreed that some quaint nomenclature and the odd slang word can be a great tool for bringing color and authenticity to a novel’s setting, but warned that more books had been ruined by heavy-handed and inconsistent use of  regional dialects.

I’m inclined to agree.

Not to mention the momentous task of educating myself on the authentic 19th-century Skye accent. Oh? Did I mention that half way through this potential novel-to-be the action is going to shift to Australia?

My point exactly.

The late Elmore Leonard, famous for his spare writing style, had this to say in his 10 Simple Rules for Writing:

Rule 7. Use regional dialect, patois sparingly.

“Once you start,” writes Leonard, “you won’t be able to stop.”

Hmm. I see his point.

So, have you tried your hand at a historical romance or genre historical fiction? If so, what, (if anything) did you do to deal with the very delicate issue of dialogue. I’d love to know.

Highland cows

Oh, and in case you are wondering about the photo above?

In gaelic: Bò Ghàidhealach

In Scots: Kyloe

Phonetically: a Heeland Coo

In English: a Scottish Cow

Now, what do you think?




4 thoughts on “The history mystery

  1. I love to read historically accurate novels. I love to have a taste of having been there, so to speak. I am writing a novel set in 19th century Italy, and I do not speak but a few words of Italian ( yes , that was a major oversight ) so I have included a few words here and there, when the words can be interpreted, not as dialogue, and I will begin and end with a poem in both English and Italian. Will it work? who knows. I haven’t written it all yet. But getting better, according to my writers group. Thanks for the blog

  2. I think it’s better to err on the side of caution and just use a few words sparingly. It takes a master like Mark Twain to pull off regional speech. Dialects are often overdone and badly done and can lose a reader before the end of Chapter 1—not what we want as writers!

    I have a character in my time-travel novel who comes from a different place and time from most other characters. I have him use some phrases and sentence constructions that sound a bit “different” to our main character. Enough to show there’s something different about him but nothing that will throw a reader—or so I hope!

  3. Love this topic! I’ve never tried to write historical fiction, though it sneaks into my dreams. I’ve written the odd bit of patois or dialect, but it has not been a critical feature. All to say, I’m no expert and have little experience to draw on. But I do love reading historical fiction, though not enough. (Why don’t I read more of it? Oh I remember now. TDD – Time Deficit Disorder).

    But, never shy about weighing in on things I know nothing about, here’s my take: I think use of dialect should probably follow the very same rules as any form of author intrusion. If it takes readers out of the story, it’s too much. Maybe some people love running to a reference book or the Internet to search out the actual meaning of a “kimmer” (Scots for young girl), but when they do, they leave your story behind, and that can’t be good. On the other hand, most people would get the Scots flavour of the dialogue if you used “bonnie” instead of “beautiful”.

    One crude tool for assessing whether a word in dialect is, perhaps, a little too obscure to use: does spellcheck recognize it? In the paragraph above, spellcheck was just peachy fine with bonnie, but choked on kimmer.

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