Writing Historical Novels, Part Two: Elements – Elocution #writing #amwriting #historical

What is elocution?

The skill of clear and expressive speech, especially of distinct pronunciation and articulation. So, in other words, speech (Elocution is more of a “historical” word for it . . . see what I did there?).

Using proper dialect for the time period of your novel will either draw the reader into that era or it will cause them to throw your book across the room. In other words, sticking to proper dialect can either be what makes your historical novel soar or will be the nail in its coffin.

Yikes! Really? Yes, really. I’ve been on both sides of this coin and it’s not fun.

Two of my novels come to mind when I talk about era-specific dialect. My novel When the Black Roses Grow, set during the Salem Witch Trials, and As the Liquor Flows, set during the Great Depression.

Of course the latter was fun to write with all the slang. I mean, who doesn’t have fun reading or writing all the 1920s and 1930s slang words like gams, dough, trip for biscuits, togged to the bricks, and blow your wig.

To read about my favorites. Click HERE.

The Salem Witch Trial book was a whole other ball of wax. Puritans had a unique dialect that was difficult to say the least. One thing I’ve learned about readers with that novel is to follow your gut. When I was writing it, I tried to keep in as much old English as I could. I was told, however, that it was too much and it would annoy readers. So I took most of it out, peppering in only certain words or terms. That did not go well. Readers didn’t like the back and forth from old English to modern. Luckily, I was able to correct it completely. I hope that it helps readers have a more enjoyable experience.

Bottom line, even if someone tells you that a certain dialect my annoy readers, chances are it probably won’t. But what will annoy them is dialogue that isn’t in time with the period. Best advice I could give, stick to the time period. Even if you think it’s a bit much.

Are there do’s and don’ts to elocution?

Do’s of Elocution
  • DO dip into period dialect with slang words or period phrases to keep the readers enjoyment. This will take research!

Word of Caution about Slang ~ For words that are common, but have a different meaning or for words that you may think might be confusing, you might want to give a little one line after to help explain the meaning.

Example: In my novel, The Woman on the Painted Horse, a young many calls my character “a foolish cherry.” Now, in 1860, to call a woman a ‘cherry’ was utterly derogatory. However, I knew that my readers might now know this. So I added a couple of words after as a way to show that it was a bad thing.

  • DO check on the meanings of words as some definitions may have changed.
  • DO use profanity at your discretion, but also DON’T overuse it. Don’t be a “Deadwood”.

Wait, what’s a Deadwood?

Well, I’ll tell you. Who here remembers that HBO TV show Deadwood? Amazing show filled with great actors—especially, Ian McShane. While the reviews for the show were good and production for multiple seasons were promising, it was also no secret that there was a particular controversy surrounding it that is thought to have cost the show its renewal. For HBO that’s a shock, too. What was the controversy? The overuse of profanity.

Don’ts of Elocution
  • DON’T use cumbersome or words that are difficult to understand for the sake of appearances.
  • DON’T weigh down the novel with too much History, whether it’s events or dialect, or historical detail.
  • DON’T use modern words such as “okay” or phrases with modern slang.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to draw your reader into the book and transport them into another time or era. When done right, you’ll have an amazing book that people will flock to! Got a question about dialogue and elocution for your historical novel? Feel free to email me or comment below.

Be sure to check out the other parts of this series:

What is the difference?

Elements to Historical Fiction and Historical Romance

Rules for Historical Fiction and Historical Romance

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9 Comments on “Writing Historical Novels, Part Two: Elements – Elocution #writing #amwriting #historical

  1. This is a keeper, since I’m still working on my 1950′-’60’s novel. Because of our present society’s political correctness, I’ve had to figure out how to use derogatory slang used back during those times toward other ethnicities and races. I’ve used mild slang so far, nothing too harsh, but enough to know that they didn’t speak like we do now.

    • Walking that thin line is hard. I dealt with it in my Salem book. You will have the people who get offended, and you will have the people who over look it, knowing they are reading a historical novel and you are just being true to the time period.

  2. I do worry about my language. So many characters from different backgrounds and current placement. Even being in the same time period doesn’t feel like much help. Dreading and looking forward to feedback on this specifically.

    • Hey Matt! Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately, you never know what will be too much for some readers and what will be an okay amount. Not knowing your time period, I couldn’t say which it is. Is it a time period where there are living people you could ask?

      • Lol. No, I suppose not. Reading documents sort of helped me with my 1692 novel, but honestly it was still hard and I have readers who are fine with the Old English I’ve done and readers who hate it. I would definitely do a lot of research as to the background on the words and when and how they were used. Most of the historical novels I’ve read don’t have any cussing; however, that’s not to say that there isn’t any on the market. I’m sure there are. It might be something you are going to have to see how people react to it. Do you have good beta readers?

      • I have compiled some diverse folks for feedback, but haven’t finished my WIP yet to distribute. How many is a good number, assuming they all finish AND provide good feedback?

      • Everyone has a different number of beta readers. It’s really how many you want to have. Just make sure that they are a diverse crowd and not all friends and family who will just love the whole thing, or worse, won’t like it, but won’t tell you for fear they will hurt our feelings or make you angry. You want people to give you honesty, even if you don’t like it. Just as with bad reviews, authors need a thick skin when it comes to our beta readers. Lol.

      • Yeah. Not all people can take criticism, but giving criticism can be difficult as well. It should be focused on more in school, how to give and get. It’s how we improve ourselves.

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