Sunday 2 November 2014

Dialogue in Novels - a Medieval Experiment by Gillian Polack

We welcome a new History Girl today: Gillian Polack, who will be posting regularly on the 2nd of each month. You can read about her on the About Us page.

First can I say how very pleased I am to be here and to meet you all. I tend to approach life directly and straightforwardly and it all comes out aslant and sidewards and different to the way I expected: my history and fiction loves are this in spades. I thought the best way to introduce myself, therefore, wasn’t with a general post about who I am, but a quite specific post about a technique I was playing with for my new novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. I type ‘new novel’ but by the time you’re reading this, my little work of subversive time travel or my little subversive time travel work will be properly out – blogging sometimes feels like time travel itself.

Langue[dot]doc 1305 is what you get when a historian of the Middle Ages introduces herself to herself properly for the first time. Or maybe just when this particular historian of the Middle Ages does that, for, as I said, life works a bit differently around me. Instead of researching it and writing it and then moving to my next novel, I used it partly to test some theories I had about research into history and about writing novels and I played with techniques and approaches. Most of this doesn’t show in the novel: it’s a novel, not an exegesis. I thought you might like to know, however, how I worked out dialogue so that it wasn’t “ye olde” or too modern. Some of the dialogue by the medieval characters sounds modern, in fact, but the way I established it means that every bit of it is grounded on a quite specific medieval reality.

Wattle and road: Australia in Spring

I did the bulk of this thought experiment in the hours I sat on a bus travelling to Sydney to teach some writers the secrets of grammar. On the highway I saw much yellow wattle and a lot of green and a terrifying amount of tarmac. Inside the bus was crowded and sweaty and noisy, and I started my analysis as a way of switching off the discomfort. After about ten minutes, I realised I had a technique that would work for my novel. I forgot everything else and was very surprised when the journey was suddenly over. In fact, the moment I got home I noted much in my journal (I don’t normally keep a writing journal, but for this, I did) and that’s why I have loads of lovely detail about what I did. I used my journal for my doctoral dissertation, so there’s a bit of overlap between the dissertation and this post. I should write journals more often!

My reasons for looking at dialogue in a different way were mainly because I was heartily tired of reading what I have taken to calling the Berlitz phrase-book approach to dialogue and character-thought. In the phrase-book approach all language is modern, except when specific words are inserted. Sometimes words from entirely the wrong language are used: Modern French instead of Old or Middle French for the Middle Ages, for instance. Get me after a drink or two and I’ll tell you which writers in particular get their languages wrong, but otherwise I shall mutter their names to myself, unhappily.

The Berlitz phrase-book approach is colourful and it’s cute and it’s simple to do, but it makes the intestines of historians writhe. I don’t like it when my intestines writhe – I’m sure they have better things to do. Since I defined it and discovered just how much of a problem I have with it, I’ve been actively developing techniques that writers can use to move from phrase book reality to getting across to the reader that this is a language and these are people who use it.

When I teach novel-writing, I explain to writers that they need to construct a world for the novel. It’s not history as we know it: it’s a believable reality that pulls people in and makes them live in that novel for as long as it lasts. A really wonderful historical novel (or novel that uses history) is more than a smattering of words, therefore, it’s an immersive reality. Readers don’t need to know how many public toilets archaeologists recently found for Medieval London (someone told me the number the other day and it weighs heavily upon me) unless a character is using one of them, or can’t use one of them and mourns all these seats and none of them available! They also don’t need to use the word 'Oui' or even the word ‘Merde” when all the rest of their French is rendered in English.

The physical setting for the novel: Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert

As writers we need to know a lot more about what goes into that built world than we tell the readers (and I’ll probably talk about this another day), but the big thing today is that one of the tools a writer has that instantly draws a reader into the story is credible dialogue. It gives the sense that the characters are real and that the history in the novel is true.

Mostly, for a writer, this is done by feel. We develop a sense of what kind of expression we need for what sort of novel to make the reader believe (while they’re reading) that our little world is the true one. Some writers have a natural instinct for this and some… don’t. What I’m after are tools that will help the latter.

What I did on that bus was find the precise and perfect kind of text from the period (or as close as I could get) and look at it (or them, actually) for what they told me about speech patterns. I wanted vocabulary and the sort of politeness you hear in conversations every day. This latter is very culturally-specific. Let me give you a modern Australian example of this (for I am a modern Australian): if a middle-aged gentleman says “Bluey, you old bugger” to a dignified gentleman his own age, he’s probably greeting an old friend perfectly politely. I don’t think this greeting works in quite the same way in the US.

Something else that was round at the time my novel was set, the abbey of Gellone

In other words, instead of writing from a general sense of how France in 1305 might sound with the expectations of readers in mind, I worked towards creating a sense of how speakers of the time might have created their own dialogue, using those texts and reflecting concepts from the period.

I focussed on two characters: Guilhem (who was from 1305) and Artemisia (the historian with the time travel team, who was from modern Australia). I used two groups of sources: collections of proverbs and sayings, and a set of plays (the Miracles of Nostre Dame). The proverbs gave a sense of how one of my characters described colour and gave me the actual proverbs and sayings that Guilhem enjoyed using. One of the plays, however, was my magic key to writing effective dialogue. I annotated that play very heavily on my bus trip to Sydney.

The play was religious: this is important, because developing dialogue was not simply a matter of translating how medieval people might have spoken. Guilhem's speech had to reflect not only his status in life and his character, but his intellectual interests. His interests would have to reflect his class, personality and life history. This is usually a much easier achievement for contemporary fiction writers than for historical! Artemisia's use of Old French had to reflect something additional to all of this – she was a historian and had never actually spoke Middle French.

The following dialogue was an early (failed) attempt to convey all this:
"I know bon frances from books. Writing."
"Escripture et…" Artemisia joked. "Outside these writings, complex ideas are very difficult."
"Let me explain again, then." Guilhem explains again.
Artemisia said, "I hate it that I understood."

This dialogue fragment demonstrates the path I was taking initially. It also shows why I left that path and found another: Guilhem and Artemisia would not have shifted languages in that way. Artemisia would have said "good French" meaning "Good Establishment French, preferably from the Île-de-France region." This level of meaning cannot be carried in translation (because then everything gets boring fast), but shifting languages where characters would not have done so is not comfortable for many readers. The conversations, therefore, had to be very carefully framed to reflect topics where Modern English was sufficiently similar in meaning, or Artemisia had to be given (which fitted her character) the capacity to run an internal commentary on what they were saying in cases where the reader needed to know more. What I learned from this, mainly, was that I had to limit my dialogue to what I knew my characters could say, rather than writing it about precisely what the story demanded. I was painting with a restricted palette.

There was another problem. The approach I used for this early fragment had no emotional link to the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages in that region had to be not-neutral, it had to have the emotional force of the street where I live when I wrote about it. Why I love historical fiction is because the best of it gets this passion for a place and time across to readers: I had to give this gift to my readers.

Another emotional link to the period for me was this stream

I tested more ideas using random samples of dialogue. The Miracle plays were very useful for establishing things people might say that underlined the importance of religion to everyday thought in the Middle Ages. Here’s an example of a bit of dialogue that uses this idea:
"I may not tell you much," Artemisia said, reluctantly. She understood the reluctance of holiness and she didn't like being the explainer of apparent miracles. Her own distrust in God was too great to lead an innocent into…whatever.
"Good," said Guilhem. "It is enough then to have this amount of knowledge. We will talk about this place, this time-"
"As I was instructed."
"As God obviously wills."

Additionally, the Middle French play I most focused on gave me some important phrases that were fairly contemporary to my story— for example, line 231 "Sire, vous dites bien, par foy" ["Lord, that's the truth, in faith"] — and of formulae that were echoed in the proverbs and thus likely to be in widespread use (see line 243 "Mon seigneur, Dieu de mal vous gart" ["My lord, God protect you from harm"]).

I hunted phrases that reflected the character's voice. When I’d collected enough, I used those phrases to write speech that sounded natural, reflected my characters, and that hopefully shattered the Berlitz approach into tiny fragments.

I also found a nice range of Old French words with direct descendants in modern English to be able to write a bit more fluidly. For instance, "Certes" from line 401 could be replaced with "Certainly" or "Definitely". This gave me a bigger vocabulary. To use a joke from my novel – my horizons grew: I added another colour to my palette.

Eventually, dialogue began to develop its path (I could stop intellectualising every minute), as I wrote on my blog:
I have a little translation-thing happening. I start to write dialogue for my people-who-actually-belong in 1305 and something in my mind says "Can't use that idea, the concept didn't exist. Need different wording because the implications of *those* words are impossible in my languages. Once the dialogue was established, establishing the sense of the past further through use of telling detail came into play. A key decision was to make it plausible to readers and to make it feel as real as possible. I used the techniques more usually associated with women's fiction (dialogue, character interaction, the minutiae of daily life) as the vehicle for this apparent realism.

In other words, I was writing natural dialogue using my phrases and vocabulary. It took quite a bit of work, but the combination of looking at words from the historical place and time, at the character’s needs, at the cultures underpinning the conversation all meant I could successfully mine the very limited number of good sources I had. And thus I had dialogue. And also thus, I can teach dialogue. That was one useful bus trip!

Never underestimate the creative power of an Australian road trip


Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, you do have to be very careful not to have a character say or think something he couldn't possibly have said or thought in that time, or with his background, or use an expression that came into existence much later. And I've read too much historical fiction in which that appends. And yes, it's irritating to read a conversation in which a character says one word in the original language when the rest of it has been "translated" into English, ;-)

Welcome to one of my favourite blogs, Gillian!

Gillian Polack said...

It's great to be here, Sue - thank you for being my very first commenter on my very first post :). I'm glad a friend got in first.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think most of the others are in the northern hemisphere, so will be asleep right now. Never mind, they'll be along soon enough. ;-)

Sean Wright said...

Just bought Langue[dot]doc 1305. :)

Gillian Polack said...

I hope you enjoy it... but if you don't, at least you can deconstruct the dialogue.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Welcome, Gillian, I am relatively new as an HG too.

Gillian Polack said...

That's good to hear, I admit. I was about to be shy of you, too, coming from a family that watched "All Creatures.." quite avidly. We're a bookish family and compared everything to the stories. I suspect the experience taught me quite a bit about storytelling!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Welcome Gillian!
What a cracker of a first post and what a lot of thinking and working through! I loved seeing the workings out behind it all and I think it's an important post for writers of historical fiction.I must admit that in my earlier writing I went much more for inserting 'flavour' words than I do now. There are better ways of being immersive and you have certainly highlighted a major one.
BTW How many public toilets were there in Medieval London? :-)

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you :). Thirty were identified, but that was one location, not in the whole of London. We're only just finding out so much stuff - maybe one day we'll know precisely how many public and semi-public toilets there were.

Gillian Polack said...

PS EC - I love it that there are so many choices for novelists. There's not one single 'correct' way of writing history into fiction.

adele said...

Welcome to the History Girls. Very much enjoyed reading this! Lovely!

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you, Adele!

Libby said...

I really enjoyed reading that,

Unknown said...

Welcome Gillian, welcome fellow Australian, or Australian resident. Thank you for an interesting post, and I have been wondering where you travelled to Sydney from. Hopefully I can get to your book some time.

Unknown said...

Interesting reading Gillian. Language was something that I had to think carefully about in my latest novel The Embroiderer. Spanning 150 years and set in Greece and Turkey, I had to face quite a difference in the way people spoke and I really enjoyed putting myself into another time and place - like an actor acting out his part in a play.

Paula Lofting said...

Hi Gillian, some great pointers there. Thank you for sharing. It's a very difficult task getting it right and it reminded me of a conversation we had about using the word adrenalin for what a medieval character was experiencing. Bit that one went in fir ages!
Best of luck with the book

Regards Paula

Edi said...

I love this blog. It is really timely and reflects what I am trying to do in my novel.

Mark Beaulieu said...

What a rich post for the historical writer, Gillian! I read parts twice. I find as you admit, reading source text of the time and getting voice is key. In my case writing of Eleanor in 12th Century Aquitaine and the English-lands, reading troubadours out loud in Old French puts you in a frame of mind to discover irony, wit, and pacing for characters diction.
Another useful technique. If you love words, make use of the computerized OED (Oxford English Dictionary). It does more than spot anachronisms. Beyond defining the meaning of a word in its time, it cites sentences of first use whose grammar and other words often provide great food for thought. Plus you can magically sort the entire OED by date to provide a corpus of words to form paragraphs.
You also hint at one of the best parts of summoning the past as a writer - not so much to spot concepts that did not exist, but to find anew ones that did. Getting lost in translation is character building, and the discoveries are like coming across an ancient recipe no longer made, say Giuseppe’s Tortoni or Medieval Pot-Bread. One relishes their restoration.

Daibhin said...

Being an avid historical fiction reader and writer, it spoils a story when writers are not careful about dialogue. Thanks for this post, Gillian. Just bought the book, and expect to enjoy it.

Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely and thoughtful post, Gillian, and welcome to the blog!

Gillian Polack said...

What a wonderful welcome you're all giving me. Thank you!

Jel Cel - it's the Canberra/Sydney road. I have taken that bus so many times!

Ann Turnbull said...

Welcome, Gillian. And what a fascinating post! This is certainly something I wrestle with and enjoy trying to get right (or right-seeming). The importance of religion in people's thought and conversation should not be under-estimated.