I’ve been batting questions back and forth with fellow historical fiction writer Wayne Turmel, a Canadian-turned-American who’s settled for now in Chicago. Some of the replies have been rather good, so I thought I’d blog them this week.
JEFF: Wayne, we both write historical fiction—the similarity seems to end there. I write World War I and 1920s, you write Medieval Kingdom of Jerusalem. As far as period choice, to each his own. I’m more interested in how our processes and stylistic choices differ. For example, you write with a very modern conversational style and with contemporary idiom. I, on the other hand, agonize over the etymology of any vaguely slangish word I use. What’s the genesis of that choice for you?
WAYNE: The problem of voice is one that every historical fiction writer needs to address. This is especially true when you’re writing about times long ago when characters spoke other languages completely, but you’re trying to tell a story that modern readers can follow. True, my last book, Acre’s Bastard, takes place in 1187 when people spoke a mix of French, Arabic, Latin and who knows what. There were also class differences to take into account—the common people used a lot fewer thys and thous. I took the approach, “What would real people say to each other?” If I was chewing out my main character Lucca, I’d just say, “Stop that, you brat!” So that’s what my characters say. Oh, and in my first novel, Count of the Sahara, it’s set in the 1920s, so the characters are more “authentic” in their expressions and voices.
This brings up a difficult issue. One of the things that’s difficult for writers is to help the reader “hear” the voice. How much “dialect” do you write? There are two pitfalls writers fall into, in my humble opinion.
The first is trying to spell words as they’re pronounced. This can be done fairly well, or it can get carried away. If you’ve ever read any of Stevenson’s Scottish stories like Master of Ballantrae, it can be slow going.
The second thing is there’s a tendency to become too charmed by idiosyncrasies. Think of any novel with slaves set in the South. The line between helping us understand their voice and slipping into caricature is awfully thin, and if you’re a modern white writer, there are all kinds of problems.
If I recall correctly, this all started with my busting your chops about your Irish characters? Every one of them is a poet, and has adorable sayings. Nobody ever just nods, says “yes,” and moves on. It’s always, “Oh, sure as the Lord made leaping lambs…” It was a simple YES or NO question, dammit.
Your serve, sir.
JEFF: You must not have grown up in a big, loud Irish family like mine. No one ever just said “yes” or “no.” It’s not genetically possible.
I also discovered something when I did a year of Irish at Harvard, of all places. There’s no exact translation for “yes” in Irish. To illustrate, let’s ask, “Is it raining?” An bhfuil sé ag cur báistí? (Literally, “Is it putting rain upon?”) In English, as you suggest, one would glance out the window and respond, “Yes.” In Irish, the grammatically correct reply is “Tá sé ag cur báistí.” (Literally, “It is putting rain upon.”) Some say the word tá is Irish for “yes” but it’s really closer to the Irish-English word “’tis.” Which is, of course a contraction of TWO words—“it is.” Which is itself an ellipted construction, so when replying “Tis,” you’re actually replying “It is (raining).” The modern Irish brand of English is heavily influenced by the musical cadences and peculiar word order of spoken Irish. I rest my case.
And my third book, No Hero’s Welcome, is set almost entirely in Ireland. You’ve been warned.
Yeah, dialect. I really struggled with that in my first book, None of Us the Same. With zero forethought, I chose characters from really tough English dialects. In the first two drafts, I tried to be phonetically punctilious, like you mention with Stevenson. The results were unreadable. I settled on a lighter touch focusing on word choice, sentence structure, rhythm, and era-appropriate idioms. And with Newfoundlander English, you cannot avoid “b’y” as in “I’ll have your answer now, b’y.” That word—a contraction of “boy” and pronounced “buy”—comes from southeast Irish dialect, down around Wexford way, and was transported to Newfoundland in the 17th century. It’s all so darn complicated.
JEFF: You mentioned your first novel, Count of the Sahara, set in the 1920s, and your search for some period authenticity in the dialogue. How did you go about finding that authenticity?
WAYNE: There’s no doubt the dialogue was easier with Count of the Sahara for a couple of reasons. First, the story took place in America in the 20th century so most readers already had a sense of the accents, slang and language because of recordings, films, and books. It was just a matter of referring to material from that time to choose expressions and tropes. Secondly, I wasn’t (with the exception of a couple of scenes in Algeria) dealing with people thinking in a different language or culture. It was our great-grandparents, basically.
I did get into trouble with one reviewer. The Algerian expedition took place in 1925, and I used the term “screwed the pooch.” One reviewer took great umbrage with that. I went back as far as the mid-30s and found a common expression on US military bases: “f___ing the dog.” This meant either messing up or wasting time and not paying attention. Either way, it seems I was ten years off, not forty, but the criticism still left a bit of a scar.
JEFF: I’m decidedly more neurotic about this than you, Wayne, but we all have our own process. I immersed myself in primary material from WWI and the 1920s—War Poets collections, Lost Generation novels, trench diaries, letter collections, memoirs, newspaper accounts, any piece of written minutiae I could find. I wanted the sound of these people in my head. I also relied on a few great secondary sources—my copy of Martin Pegler’s Soldiers’ Songs and Sayings of the Great War is well dogeared.
About something you mentioned earlier regarding African-American dialect(s). (You also obliquely alluded to the much bigger issue of “cultural appropriation” which I blogged about a few months ago.) In my second book, Truly Are the Free, I have a lot of characters from Harlem and soldiers from the “colored” 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment. They cut across class, education, and region. I was very concerned not to fall on the caricature side of your line. On the other hand, I didn’t want all my African-American characters to be lovely and good, which is just as condescending and insulting as dialect caricatures. It was a tough row to hoe and I asked every single early reader about how I did with it. The reviews are very positive thus far, so hopefully that means I did alright.
And now, for the Lightning Round! Short questions, short answers on Very Random Things. Some even related to writing.
Favorite historical era you DON’T write in?
W: The US Civil War (or as I like to call it, the FIRST Civil War). I’m just so done with revisionist history.
J: Viking age of conquest. Definitely want to be Ragnar Lothbrok.
Oxford comma: yes or no?
W: Hell yes. (And fwiw, the last letter of the alphabet is zed. It’s the ENGLISH language you lazy Yankee weasels.) My favorite example is from a book cited in Mental Floss: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” Kind of important missing comma, unless you believe God would touch Ayn Rand with a ten foot pole, which I surely don’t.
J: I was first taught punctuation by the Sisters of Mercy. The Oxford comma was (literally) beaten into me.
What’s your idiot savant skill?
W: Ummmm, I was on Jeopardy and lost badly, so I can retain enough trivia to impress, but not enough to make any money.
J: I have never been beaten at and was once barred from the Hershey Park arcade for hustling Whack-a-Mole.
W: After 30+ years of having the Vancouver Canucks break my heart, I moved to Chicago just in time for the rebirth of the Blackhawks. They’re my team, although we’re moving to Las Vegas next year, so the Golden Knights may become my “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” team.
J: Unequivocal agreement! Lifelong fan of da Cubs, da Bears, da Bulls… and da Blackhawks.
And since we’re both (ahem) Of a Certain Age, Ginger or Mary Ann?
W: Is this a kiss-marry-kill kind of deal? If I knew for sure we’d be on the island more than a weekend, Mary Ann.
J: Mary Ann, all the way! As an 11-year-old Gilligan’s Island devotee, Ginger kinda scared me.
I’m considering making this tête à tête with Wayne a regular quarterly post, so let me know what you think in the comments.
You can check out Wayne’s books and his own blog on his author website. I’m a big fan of his intrepid scamp, Lucca Le Pou, the main character in Acre’s Bastard. Wayne assures me the next installment of Lucca’s adventures will come in the not-too-distant future.