Writing Historical Novels, Part One, Left Overs and Left Outs

A varmint

After putting the Part One post online, some not entirely unrelated thoughts popped into my conscious mind, presumably from the swamp of my unconscious mind. So, before I continue with Part Two’s earnest but amateurish effort at linguistics here are those vaporous thoughts, rather like quagmire gas which often gets the blame for paranormal sightings in swamps.

First off… but I just thought of a possibly profitable invention: A patois translator app much like, though much more accurate, the translator app offered by Google. The aspiring or even successful writer of historical fiction merely types in the dialogue that makes the story go forward and then clicks the patois button. Voila, his or her modern day dialogue is instantly translated into genuine Ol’ West dialogue using genuine Ol’ West patois. Now, I just need to convince a friend to do the hard work of writing the program. We’ll share fifty-fifty.

Anyway, the rason d’etre for this post is that while I was researching examples of late 19th century western US speech patterns one of the resources was Hopalong Cassidy movies and in particular his side-kick, Windy Halliday (later on, in another studio, the character was renamed Gabby Whitaker, and there’s an amusing Wikipedia article about the actor, George Hayes). In the Hopalong movies. Windy is the sole actor to use Ol’ West Jargon (OWJ). The other actors say their lines using twentieth-century American accents, and  using little if any, OWJ.

Mel Brooks had fun with OWJ in Blazing Saddles, with his character, Gabby Johnson, who after an unintelligible rant is applauded by another character who says, “Now, who can argue with that?” and then refers to the unintelligible rant as “authentic frontier gibberish” (AFG). The reader can access Gabby Johnson’s speech on YouTube, and if you do, please click on the CC button. YouTube provides a translation of the speech, part of which begins with the only intelligible words, “…and no sidewinder…” before Gabby descends into AFG. However, the CC app begins by translating those first three words into “…and no say…” before translating the remainder of the speech into “…radium bushwhacking pouring for a cracker croaker he’s gonna roll away push the cutter!” I don’t know. Maybe the script does read that way. I’m just glad Gabby Johnson doesn’t give spelling tests.

Before Gabby Johnson there was Yosemite Sam who mostly speaks a Hollywood version of OWJ. Though when he cusses, his cuss words – sounds actually – are meaningless but convincing expressions of genuine OWJ cussing. He was banished from Saturday mornings not because of his foul language, but for his violence: murderous intent toward rabbits and cruelty to camels. The viewing public sitting cross legged in front of a television set knew him to be an authentic western-frontier character because of the six-guns strapped onto a gun belt, his hat and boots, and because he’s named after a park somewhere out west. He also uses the word varmint a lot, a bit of OWJ shared with two other somewhat similar stereotypes, hillbillies and red-necks.

The popular images of red necks and hillbillies sometimes gets commingled in spite of southerners having their own distinct and non-OWJ speech patterns and vernacular. Even their roosters adhere to a deep south dialect, so while growing up I never thought of Foghorn Leghorn as a red neck and certainly not a hillbilly. But I wander afield. Mr. Leghorn’s only relevance to this post is Looney Tunes – him and Yosemite Sam belonged to the same Studio, shared the same voice actor, and both used fowl language.

As a side note – but then again, all of this post is pretty much a side note to my original investigation – the initial Hopalong Cassidy – from the 1905 book, not the 1935 movies – was not a children’s role model for speaking proper US English as was the actor, William Boyd. No, the original Hopalong, though not in AFG, did express himself with a convincing Ol’ West way of talking:

“Calamity is comin’ to th’ misguided mavericks that get gay about it!” retorted Hopalong. “I wear what I feels like, an’ don’t you forget it, neither.”

So authentic, I easily hear and see Yosemite Sam saying that line.

By the way, the author, who lived in Maine and not Texas, also tried to approximate the speech of Mexicans speaking pidgin English. Admittedly, that’s not relevant to my OWJ research, though the book does provide me with the first recorded instance of the derogatory slang term for Mexicans: greasers. (I’m always on the lookout for the first use of a slang word so that I don’t use anachronistic terms as do the writers of Deadwood.)

Hillbilly-speak came to mind when researching OWJ because that vernacular sounds so similar. At least, to television scriptwriters it does. It should come as no surprise when I now present television’s finest example of Hillbilly dialogue, The Beverly Hillbillies. Their speech patterns and patois are pretty much indelibly imprinted into my brain. Certain of their words and phrases immediately bring to mind the identifying nametag of hillbilly: woo-dogies, vittles, and of course, Y’all.

There appears to be a movement by some to start using y’all in place of the confusing third person plural. I have nothing against using y’all per se. I’m not sure of the motivation of those who are championing the change though I suspect it’s an attempt to validate African-American dialect. My problem with using it arises because I associate the word with The Beverley Hillbillies’ TV show which ended with, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?” So, when I hear it, I think hillbilly-speak and not AA dialect. Quick, think of a cartoon character saying y’all. Was it Yosemite Sam or Foghorn Leghorn?


Clarence Edward Mulford, Hopalong Cassidy, 1905

1 thought on “Writing Historical Novels, Part One, Left Overs and Left Outs

  1. jim one source you could look at would be the “The Virginian” suppose to be first serious western novel. not a dime novel or short stoy. good book as well must of read it 50 years ago now,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *