Cassius: The clock has stricken three.
- Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Brutus and Cassius may have been talking about clocks in 44 B.C., but the first mechanical one wasn’t invented until the mid-thirteenth century. This famous anachronism illustrates the problems in writing historical dialogue. The dialogue has to be of the time and yet not too obscure for modern audiences. And even if the dialogue manages to be true to the time, it also has to be true to the audience’s sense of that time.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem: historical dialogue should avoid anachronistic words and phrases. A character in 1912 can’t describe another character as “goofy” or talk about a place being like “boot camp”; the adjective “goofy” dates to 1921, and “boot camp” came into use around 1941. A good etymological dictionary can catch these errors. Writers can also develop a feeling for the words and rhythm of speech in a time period by reading primary sources.
A more subtle problem occurs when modern concepts creep into historical works. For example, the phrase “making a good impression” or the word “negotiating” used as a euphemism for rougher dealings may not ring true in a work set in the late fifteenth century. Even in a show as meticulously scripted as Mad Men, modernisms sneak in. Again, relying on primary sources can help spot these interlopers.
Another challenge is making the dialogue understandable for modern audiences. For instance, calling a character a “glos colverd bricon” may be the greatest medieval insult ever, but if the audience doesn’t understand it, the words are wasted.
Here’s another tricky challenge: the dialogue has to be true to the audience’s sense of the time period. For example, the word “wisecrack” actually dates back to 1906, but it sounds as if it came later. If a story is set shortly before WWI, that word could jar readers if they associate it more with the 1920s and 1930s. If they wonder about a word, then it pulls them out of the story.
Coming up with believable curses that fit a time period is hard too. A colleague who is writing a screenplay set in the Renaissance noted that a curse with shock value back then may not shocking (or understandable) now. Conversely, things that we consider terribly shocking today may not have been then. Her solution is to stay true to an audience’s sense of what’s shocking today and write the curse with the flavor of the time.
Writers for children face another hurdle. Given the audience, it may be awkward or unwise to use real curse words. How does a writer handle foul-mouthed characters like pirates or gangsters in a children’s story? Robert Louis Stevenson solved the problem by making up his own imaginative curses in Treasure Island. The pirates say “By thunder!” a lot and call each other a “confounded son of a Dutchman!” In a more recent example, the writer in books that I edited used food-based curses for her mouse characters, such as “crepes!”
Writers that tackle historical dialogue face many challenges, but surmounting them is worth the effort. Understandable, believable dialogue transports audiences to another time and place.