Writer pal Larry Kahaner who blogs at The Non-FictionNovelist, has mentioned while discussing writing techniques that Allen Appel and Dan Stashower are able to write “old.” Thriller Guy will now turn the blog over to Appel for an explanation.
What Larry is talking about is the ability to write historical fiction where the characters sound, when there is dialogue, like they belong in whatever the historical period the novel is set in. All my time travel books are set in the past, (as opposed to the future): Time After Time is set in 1917, Twice Upon a Time 1876, Till the End of Time 1945, The Sea of Time 1913, and In Time of War 1865. My novel, Abraham Lincoln: Detective takes place in 1842. So how does one go about making his characters “sound” correct? (You can go here and buy any of these novels for Kindle and judge for yourself if I have succeeded.)
First of all, it’s impossible to do so with absolute certainty because recording devices didn't exist until invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. Even then after that date, I believe, recording devices were so unusual that most people spoke into them in self-conscious ways for many years. Look at an old newsreel with a politician standing on the courthouse steps being filmed, and you’ll usually see a man shouting at the camera in a stilted manner as if the medium itself was hard of hearing. Recordings of casual, relaxed, off-hand conversation just didn’t exist until more modern times. So what’s a writer to do?
Dan Stashower says, “You don’t want to sound like a Renaissance Fair. ‘Prithee, wouldst thou direct me to the Porta Potty?’ I like to roll around in old newspapers and novels, to pick up the flavors and textures of the period.”
(Thriller Guy would like to bust in here for a moment to mention that Dan’s latest book. Hour of Peril is now out in paperback. It’s an excellent read about Lincoln and Pinkerton as they travel to Washington for Lincoln’s first inaugural. Buy a copy and do yourself a favor. Also, Dan’s series of mysteries starring Harry Houdini as the detective are back in print. You can see how he tackles the writing “old” problem in this series.)
Allen here again… Whenever I start, or actually before I start a new book set in the past, I search out any letters I can find that are of the period either by famous people or better yet by “ordinary” folks. I understand that people do not necessarily speak like they write, but it gives me a working knowledge of the sorts of words that they used in dialogue. When I have Mark Twain as a character, as I did in Twice Upon a Time, and as I do in the novel I’m completing now, I go back to his collected letters to get a sense of the rhythm of the way he wrote, and, hopefully, spoke. I use, as Dan has suggested, old newspapers to pick up phrases and words that were current at the time. Period novels are less helpful to me in that I don’t trust that fictional characters are speaking the way people really spoke.
But it is wise not to become too caught up in these difficulties and concerns. If you do, you will spend all your time attempting to perfect your “old voice” rather than getting on with the actual novel. And besides, if no one knows what people in the past actually sounded like then readers won’t have any idea if you’ve got it right or not. The trick is to toss in a piece of dialogue that is a bit stilted every once in awhile, stilted in a way that suggests the period. You can’t do this too often or too overtly -- it can backfire and take the reader out of his suspension of disbelief -- but if you’re careful it can establish the reader in the period without being too obvious. Remember, as in most areas of writing and life, a little goes a long way.
So the next time you read a period novel, ask yourself if the author has succeeded in this tricky task. And if you’re a writer as well, pay attention to how the author pulled off this bit of slight of hand. And use it yourself.