I’m going to try my hand at a bit of writing advice. I am nothing close to an expert, but there is one thing that I have noticed that makes the world of difference, and it’s really common sense, when you get down to it.
I finally finished a novel and it is set in 1774 in Great Britain. I had an absolute blast writing it and most people that I have workshopped it with have commented that part of what makes it so much fun is that the dialogue makes you feel like you are standing in Great Britain in 1774.
I am now starting another historical fiction novel, this one set in 1850 in Northern Michigan. It was a story that I stumbled upon and I could not wait to start writing about. But it’s been a week now and I’ve written about a paragraph and I hate every word of it. It’s not as fun as my first one (it actually isn’t fun at all) and it had me worrying that maybe that first completed novel was a one-off thing and maybe I will have to settle for just that.
Rather than face that hastily-drawn-up fate, I did some thinking. What made the first one so enjoyable?
It was an easy revelation. While writing that novel, set in 1774 Britain, I was reading Barnaby Rudge, by Charles Dickens, which is conveniently set in Britain in the early 1780s. As many of you know, I have an obsession with Charles Dickens and that made the transition from reading to writing incredibly easy and enjoyable.
So I had to figure out a way to get into the spirit of 1850s America. I explored some authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, wanting an American voice at the time, but most of what they write had nothing to do with the tale I wanted to tell.
Then, I stumbled on gold. In all of my fandom of Charles Dickens, I was never privy to the knowledge that his own Martin Chuzzlewit takes a turn from Great Britain and lands in America, circa 1840s.
I’m not a guy who shows a lot of outward emotion, but that almost made me jump for joy. Although it was still going to be from an Englishman’s perspective.
Wanting to avoid just being a Dickens wannabe, I also dove into Herman Melville and the one novel and few short stories he wrote that didn’t take place on a seafaring vessel or involve a whale.
I’m now reading The Confidence-Man which takes place on a boat (surprise!) only it’s a boat on the Mississippi River. And the dialogue has gotten me in the spirit of the 1850s and suddenly, my tale is fun to tell, just like the 1774 tale.
As a side note, the first thing I look for in dialogue is how people insulted each other. In the 1770s, ragamuffin, rake, rapscallion, cretin, and more were used in the insulting arsenal.
I was so pleased to find a developing array of insults in The Confidence-Man. I cannot wait to call someone a churl and a rascal.
So that’s my attempt of advice. Don’t assume you know anything. Put yourself in the spirit of your piece by indulging in other pieces of that time.