Dialogue is one of the most useful tools an author has. You can use it to move the plot along because the characters tell what’s going to happen rather than the author. It happens in real time so it’s a nice change of pace. It presents information such as back story (one character talking to another.) It’s also useful as another means to develop conflict – one character arguing with another. However, as an author of historical romance, dialogue is an important tool to identify a character. Word usage and slang defines a person and consequently defines the era in which that character lives.
When I write dialogue, I have my trusty Merriam Webster Tenth Edition Collegiate Dictionary by my side. (It’s a little frayed along the bottom, an indicator of how much I pull it off the shelf.)
I use the dictionary to check when a word came into usage and for that you can blame my technical background on my obsession with details. For example, I wanted to use ‘poppycock’ in the book I’m working on now. It came into usage in 1865 which doesn’t work for my story as it’s set in 1800.
Katherine Pym, co-author of Pillars of Avalon (along with Jude Pittman), Book 5 from the Canadian Historical Brides Collection, does a terrific job of using dialogue to define the era. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Aye.” Frances dashed some numbers along another line. “The warehouse is large, it only seems empty.” She regarded Sara with a smile. “You’ve done very well provisioning the fleet. Do not think otherwise.” Something caught her eye. “Oiy, you there, where’s the other barrel of wine? I shall not have any thievery committed under our very noses.” Waving her ledger, she advanced sharply on a fellow carrying a cask upon his shoulder.
“What does you want, young lass?” he snarled at her. “Shouldn’t you be home with thy mamma, eating mashed gruel?”
Frances’ back stiffened and Sara knew the man would regret his impertinence. “I beg your pardon? Do you have an incontinent liver that needs correction? I shall call the Watch and have you carried away for rude and disorderly behaviour.” She leaned forward and hissed. “It will surely happen. Now, answer me truthfully. Where’s the other cask of wine?”
Reading this, you know it’s not a contemporary story. Words and phrases like oiy, thievery, thy mamma, mashed gruel, incontinent liver, call the Watch, suggest an earlier time period.
The following excerpt from Barkerville Beginnings, Book 4 of the collection shows another example of how speech defines a person. It’s obvious Robert McTague is a Scot by his word usage ie “me da’s croft” “ma’self” "nae" and his reference to Culloden as well as calling Harrison a “Sassenach”.
Not only that, in talking to Harrison, Robert gives us a little information on Barkerville ie how many miners there were during the height of the Cariboo Gold Rush. As well, a bit of back story for both characters is revealed ie Robert comes from a poor farmer’s croft and like most other miners has travelled a fair distance to get to Barkerville and Harrison knows a thing or two about horses.
“Harrison entered Mundorf Stables. “Hello,” he shouted, scanning the stalls. Most were empty and through the open double doors at the rear he noticed his mule team huddled together in the corner of the pen. Nancy, ears pricked forward, hung her head over the top rail, no doubt plotting her escape. At least they were here where he’d left them last night so it appeared the livery owner was a trustworthy sort. However, trustworthy enough to negotiate some sort of bargain remained to be seen.
A red-haired man with a full red beard wandered out from one of the stalls. Harrison recognized him as the fellow he’d shared his breakfast table with this morning.
A grin ripped through the man’s beard, revealing front teeth buckled together. “Well, look who’s here.” He gestured to the map under Harrison’s arm. “See you took my advice and went to the commissioner’s office.” He held out his hand. “We didn’t get around to exchanging names this morning. Robert McTague.”
The Scottish burr in his voice sounded out of place and Harrison knew from their brief chat at breakfast that the other man had also traveled halfway around the world to join in on Cariboo gold fever. He grasped Robert’s hand, giving it a good shake. The other man’s firm grip put Harrison at ease immediately.
“Harrison St. John. I made it there but I don’t know what to do now. Other than see to my livestock.”
“I’m here doing the same thing ma’self. Rode in on my horse but he didn’t take too well to the trail. I’m resting him up for now and hoping for the best. Hate to shoot the beast although I hate to see him suffer too.”
“Been here long?”
Robert shook his head. “Maybe a week. But long enough to know this isn’t quite what I expected.” He laughed. “I’ve washed a few pans of gravel on some of the abandoned claims and only found enough gold dust ta pay for my food but I hate to give up. There’s naught for me back home.”
“Aye. Me da’s croft is full to bursting so I thought to make my own way in the world. From your accent, I’d wager you’re English.”
“Indeed. By way of Manchester.”
The other man chuckled. “Well, we won’t talk about Culloden, now will we?”
Harrison grinned. “No, I think not.” He pointed into the stall. “Is this the fellow you’re nursing?”
Robert’s face fell. “Aye. That’s Brutus.”
“I know a thing or two about horses. Let me take a look at him.” He ran his hands over the animal’s withers, flanks and on down its legs. “He feels sound enough. A bit bony perhaps but I’d give him another day or two of rest and some good feed before you decide anything.” The horse, a bay gelding, rubbed his nose against Harrison’s shoulder and for an instant he felt a pang of regret for the four he sold to finance his journey here. One day, he vowed, he’d have another set, equally as fine as the first.
“I’d thought the same. Time is the best healer.” Robert patted the horse’s nose.
“Do you know many people here? Have you met a fellow by the name of Edmund Chadwick?”
“Nae, can’t say that I have. But hearsay has it there’s upwards of ten thousand men here and up and around the hills. Could be he’s not made his way into town for some time. These miners can get caught up with the fever and not wanting to leave their claims unless necessary.” He clamped his lips, which made the hairs of his beard stand up around his mouth like a pin cushion, and regarded Harrison through narrowed eyes. “I’m looking for a partner. Two heads being better than one and all that. Until now, I haven’t met anyone I’m wanting to spend time with. But I’m thinking a Sassenach might be a good choice. You lot being pigheaded and all.” He chuckled and held out his hand again. “What do you think?”
“Partner? You don’t know anything about me.”
“You’ve a flair for horses and Brutus has taken to you, that’s good enough for me. And like I said, you Englishmen are pigheaded as far as I can tell. That’ll stand a man in good stead out here.”
Harrison stared at the other man’s outstretched hand. His first inclination was to decline the offer until he noted the trimmed, albeit dirty, fingernails and the calluses on Robert’s palm. The sign of honest labour. He raised his gaze and studied the other man’s face. Or rather, only his eyes and forehead seeing as how his unruly beard covered everything else including his neck.
Robert returned his gaze with guileless blue eyes. “Well?” he prompted.
Still Harrison didn’t reply. Here he was, in Barkerville, with a wagon full of supplies and nary an inkling of what to use them for. It might be helpful to have a partner, especially someone already familiar with what to expect. It made sense that the two would be stronger and more productive together. Besides, half of something was better than all of nothing.
He grabbed the Scot’s hand. “You’ve got yourself a partner. Where to now?”
“Let’s find a saloon. The whiskey out here is rotgut but ‘tis good enough to wet your whistle and raise a toast or two to God and country.” Robert chuckled. “And Cariboo gold.””
Dialogue makes the characters and story come alive!
You can find "Pillars of Avalon", "Barkerville Beginnings" and the rest of the Canadian Historical Brides Collection here: www.bookswelove.com/canadian-historical-brides