Writing Historical Novels Part One

Writing Dialogue for American Historical Novels.

Cassandra once told me that I wrote dialogue well. At the time, content to hear praise, I didn’t bother to ask myself if what she was saying translated into: Your fictional dialogue is a notch above average and your prose isn’t.

My wife was a highly educated teacher of English and an accomplished linguist, and she loved me. So, I’m going to judge these two prime factors influencing her judgement as counter-balancing and declare myself as a mostly good writer of dialogue. Anyway, for me, prose, purple or plain, is just a means to an end. I view it mostly as the stuff that screenplay writers use to set the scene and maybe give stage directions to the actors’ movements.

A posit: Two examples of successful recreations of western American dialogue: True Grit by Charles Portis; and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. A second posit; The most anachronistic dialogue for the genre is heard in the television series, Deadwood.

Some book reviews will praise an author’s ear for dialogue, usually if the author has convincingly recorded the speech patterns of their own hometown region: Faulkner’s Mississippi, Warton’s upper-class New York of the Gilded Age, Twain’s 1840’s Missouri boyhood.

Writing dialogue for historical fiction situated long before the author or his influences (grandparents and other oldsters) were born requires something besides a good ear. Actually, I don’t think sensitive hearing is very essential when trying to recreate speech from the pre-gramophonic era. Maybe some authors can in their mind’s ear hear that long dead and unrecorded speech. I doubt it. Hearing something in one’s mind’s ear sounds an awful lot like channeling dead spirits, and I draw the line just after seeing things via the mind’s eye.

There are two sources that this author uses for his attempts of recreating long ago speech patterns. The first are written accounts of the speech of the common person in the late 1800’s. As examples, consider these two writers: Bret Harte and Edward L. Wheeler.

Bret Harte wrote in the late eighteen-hundreds; and a currently alive writer hoping to harvest a collection of old west argot from his books and short stories would pretty-near starve, pardner. His characters didn’t tend to use colorful old-west-sounding patois. This is about as close as to clod-hopping argot he’d reproduce:

“The folks about here are very kind,” said Miggles, after a pause, coming a little into the light again. ” The men from the fork used to hang around here, until they found they was n’t wanted, and the women are kind, —and don’t call. I was pretty lonely until I picked up Joaquin in the woods yonder one day, when he was n’t so high, and taught him to beg for his dinner ; and then thar ‘s Polly —that ‘s the magpie —she knows no end of tricks, and makes it quite sociable of even ings with her talk, and so I don’t feel like as I was the only living being about the ranch. And Jim here,”

But most of his characters spoke somewhere between Miggles above and the Judge below who says:

“It is evident that either our distinguished friend here has reached that condition described by Shakespeare as ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ or has suffered some premature abatement of his mental and physical faculties. Whether he is really the Miggles —”


For rootin-tootin old-west talk in extremis, Edward L. Wheeler in 1877 provides us with this:

“…not all owing to that. Thar’s them gol danged copper-colored guests uv ther government— they’re kickin’ up three pints uv the’r rumpus, more or less— consider’bly less of more than more o’ less. Take a passel uv them barbarities an’ shet ’em up inter a prison for three or thirteen yeers, an’ ye’d see w’at an impression et’d make, now. Thar’d be siveral less massycrees a week, an’ ye wouldn’t see a rufyan onc’t a month. W’y, gentlefellows, thar’d nevyar been a ruffian, ef et hedn’t been fer ther cussed Injun tribe— not one! Ther infarnal critters ar’ ther instignators uv more deviltry nor a cat wi’ nine tails.”

There might be a scientific way of knowing which author duplicated a more authentic version of the ordinary westerner’s way of talking (ordinary being the non-FOB westerners; the FOB characters in westerns are usually Scots, Irish, or French; more on those immigrants in part two).

But if you had to depend solely on the two authors’ biographies for determining their bone fides, then Harte would win, handily. He’d spent time in the 1849 gold fields of the California Sierras. I don’t think Wheeler, while writing dime novels and managing a Philadelphia playhouse, ever traveled west of the Appalachians. Though, he might have attended Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – several of his dime novels featured Mr. Bill.

An ex-friend and peer of Bret Harte didn’t think much of his writing ability. From Wikipedia, “Mark Twain, however, characterized him and his writing as insincere. Writing in his autobiography four years after Harte’s death, Twain criticized the miners’ dialect used by Harte, claiming that it never existed outside of his imagination.

There exists no record of Mark Twain’s opinion of dime novel dialogue. However, aside from the brilliant patois narrative of his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I’ve read in a reliable biography that he was fond of minstrel shows and would enthusiastically reenact performances of white actors mimicking African-Americans of the old south. Fortunately for his legacy, there is no gramophonic evidence of him doing this.

Hmm, I seemed to have picked two unreliable sources for mining my sought-after argot gold. Well, I’ll keep looking, and in the meanwhile why don’t we mosey on over to my second source of authentic sounding dialogue gold. But, hol’ on thar pilgrim, that’ll have to wait until the next post in which I’ll argue that True Grit is good and Deadwood is bad.


The Bret Harte quotes are from his short story, Miggles, from his The Luck of Roaring Camp collection of stories, published in 1877.

Edward L. Wheeler. Deadwood Dick, the Prince of the Road; or, The Black Rider of the Black Hills 1877.


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