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I was recently rereading bits of Pride and Prejudice and the dialog is absolutely brilliant. How can I learn to write dialog that sounds like it is from this general era? For example are there any lists of words that I should try to substitute or differences in the grammatical constructs used?

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Really? I thought the dialog in Jane Austen all sounds like fourteen-page handwritten letters. ANYWAY, why don't you try posting your attempts here, and we'll make suggestions for improvements? –  Joel Spolsky Jan 4 '11 at 22:59
    
@Joel, because writing critiques are explicitly off-topic on this site. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 4 '11 at 23:44
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Also, not to be a nag, but Austen is from the tail end of the 18th century, and her dialog is pretty different from what I think of as typical 19th century dialogue, as found in e.g. Dickens or Oscar Wilde. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 4 '11 at 23:46
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@JSBangs The floodgates are open! Everything is on topic now! Yee-haw! Ahem, I mean, er, specifically, writing critiques. –  mootinator Jan 5 '11 at 0:19
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your best bet is to read a lot of the literature written in that time period. Those authors have an advantage over you - they lived then and knew how people spoke. When writing a historical piece an etymology dictionary is your best friend. It'll tell you if the word you want to use was in use back then and if not, when it came into usage. But you're going to want to do a lot of research into classes in that time period. An upperclassman wouldn't speak the same as a lowerclassman. But reading a lot of books from that era can help you get a pretty good feel for things. Literature can often be the best forms of history.

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I wouldn't try to imitate exactly the style of dialogue in the era of Austen unless you are planning on imitating everything about the historical era very well. As Ralph Gallagher said, Austen and others have an advantage over you - they were just writing how they spoke or heard others around them speak. If you manage to only get part of the whole historical ethos - some of the words and a bit of the dress with anachronisms from our own time thrown in - your readers will be continuously jilted out of the story.

It is possible to write historical fiction using the languages of our own day. No one would write a work of historical fiction set in Chaucer's time and attempt to use his language because readers would largely not understand it. Instead the language would be modernized. If you can't do the Romantic era perfectly, you might be best off doing the same.

It is possible for dialogue written in modern English or any language to be brilliant. What matters is an ear for cadences, for apt words, for truths about life as they really are. Whether you write in Middle, Romantic, Victorian, or modern English, it's what you say that matters.

TL;DR version:

Do historical dialogue extremely well or not at all.

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Good point. Mimicking the register of a language you don't speak will only ever be pastiche. However as writers we should all take note that modern people don't really talk in dialogue either, once you start analysing written dialogue you start to understand why it's not like people really speak. For this reason I would contend it is possible to pastiche the writers of past ages, it's just really difficult. –  One Monkey Jan 5 '11 at 14:31
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@One Monkey - I'll agree that it's possible. My point was simply that it's extremely difficult to do well. I've read enough badly done historical fiction to last several lifetimes, and perhaps only one author who was quite good. –  justkt Jan 5 '11 at 14:32
    
@justkt: I think that dialogue is just pretty hard to write well, most film scripts are serviceable at best and great dialogue writers are few and far between. –  One Monkey Jan 5 '11 at 15:29
    
On the other hand, sometimes all you need is one character who's pulled out of his or her element...There was one sci-fi book I read where one woman was raised in Elizabethan England, and due to some hand-waving, was the only person still using words like 'forsooth' in the 23rd century... –  atroon Jan 6 '11 at 21:20
    
"Do historical dialogue extremely well or not at all?" - Ah, but how can you learn to do it well, without first doing it badly? –  Casebash Jan 7 '11 at 2:45
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Read scenes out loud, learn to speak like that. A key part of writing dialogue is being able to hear it back in your head like people actually speaking to one another. It's a skill George Lucas never bothered to acquire. They call it having an "ear" for dialogue for a reason.

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When my characters speak in my head, and I'm driving in the car, I wish I had the "Brain Recorder App". Later, when I try to recall, it never comes out right. –  Christopher Mahan Jan 7 '11 at 1:26
    
@Christopher Mahan: That's why you need to actually feel the words in your mouth. I'm sure there's some neurological thing going off but I'm not a scientist. Anyhow if you have engaged in the speaking of dialogue then it becomes easier to write it. Also a good idea to read plays aloud and learn how the cadence works in an actual mouth. –  One Monkey Jan 7 '11 at 10:02
    
Yeah, I hear you. I read out loud a lot. I also do scenes out loud from movies, trying to emulate the actors--badly. –  Christopher Mahan Jan 7 '11 at 16:34
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@Christopher I always think of that quote from Harrison Ford about the dialogue in Star Wars "You can write this shit, George, but you sure can't say it." –  One Monkey Jan 7 '11 at 17:08
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