Hear Ye!

Happy new year! May your writing flourish in 2018!

On October 14th way back in 2017, StorytellerLizzie wrote, I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy,” “calm down,” and such. Any help would be appreciated!

Lots of you responded.

Song4myKing: “Be still.”“Hold thy peace” (closer to our “be quiet,” perhaps).Verily, my main source is familiarity with the King James Version Bible. But behold, though it hath a few colloquialisms, they do not abound the way they do in common speech. Therefore, I wait with eagerness to see what others have to say.

Melissa Mead: What time period are we talking about? There were some big changes in there, and “Old English” doesn’t sound much like English that we’d recognize. Shakespeare added a whole lot of words to the language, too.

This might help. It’s the “Christmas verses” of the Bible in several languages, and the first few are different versions of English, with dates: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/016555.html#016555.

Tangye: Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.) One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

StorytellerLizzie wrote back thusly: Now that I’ve looked at a rough outline of the English language through the years, I think I’m going for more of an Early Modern English vibe, 1440-1604ish. Fancy, but not so fancy that my MC has a huge learning curve just trying to talk to the other characters.

These are great!

Song4myKing’s nod to the King James version of the Bible is inspired, because, according to Wikipedia, it was translated between 1604 and 1611. And so is Melissa Mead’s Shakespeare suggestion, since he, too, was writing at the end of StorytellerLizzie’s period.

I’d recommend not going much earlier than the seventeenth century, because both the King James Bible and Shakespeare are challenging enough for a reader–this reader anyway.

However, despite my recommendation, if you want to do full-throttle post-Chaucerian, go for it. I’d say read a good deal from the period until the reading becomes easy. Work on thinking in period language. The reader may have trouble at the beginning, but if your story grabs her, she’ll hang in. Then, once she gets it, she’ll be immersed and will feel proud of herself for getting there. You might also consider using the same notation system that appears in Volume I of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, both definitions in the margins and in footnotes at the bottom of the page, which will take a lot of the work out of it for the reader. I tried and failed to find a link to a page online, but I’d bet your local library has a copy. Notations can be done in a lighthearted way, too. If we have fun with them, the reader probably will, too.

I’ve mentioned Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court before on the blog. It’s also a time-travel story. Twain mines the old-timey language as well as the trappings of a courtly age to great comic effect. The novel is in the public domain, so here’s a sample from early on, before the main character realizes that he has time traveled:

“Fair sir, will ye just?” said this fellow.

“Will I which?”

“Will ye try a passage of arms for land or lady or for—”

“What are you giving me?” I said.  “Get along back to your circus, or I’ll report you.”

Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.

Hah!

Since StorytellerLizzie’s story is also a time-travel tale, Twain’s example is particularly instructive. If it’s told by the contemporary visitor, then the narration will be different from the dialogue, as is the case with Twain, but if the POV is third-person omniscient, we can choose whether to go contemporary or old-fashioned.

I do not recommend this, but I’m offering it as either an example of the possibilities or a cautionary tale about the crazy lengths writers can go to. When I wrote Stolen Magic, I decided to limit my vocabulary to words that entered English no later than 1700, so I checked the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for every word I suspected of later origins. (In case some of you don’t know, the OED is a historical dictionary that lists dates with quotations for every usage and nuance of a word. I subscribe to the online service, which isn’t cheap, but, again, I suspect your library subscribes, too. If you haven’t, I’d recommend looking at it at least once to see how it works and what it offers.) This foolishness slowed down my writing considerably–and I doubt it improved the book. However in StorytellerLizzie’s case, it might be worth checking a word every so often to make sure it isn’t an absolute newcomer. You can search phrases, too, as well as words.

And here’s another probably insane thought: Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, either rhyming or blank verse (no rhymes). Pentameter goes out the window with prose, but iambs are still possible. Iambs are ta DUM, ta DUM, ta DUM, in two-syllable units called feet in poetry. Take this line from Richard III, in which I’ve capitalized the stressed syllables: a HORSE, a HORSE! My KINGdom FOR a HORSE! A poetry teacher once told the class I was taking that Fitzgerald wrote chunks of The Great Gatsby (high school and up) in iambs. I wonder what it would be like to try that, what kind of voice that would create.

Anything can be said in iambs, since to some degree English naturally falls that way, but it takes effort and a thesaurus, and it might slow the writing even more than constantly checking the OED. Still, we can try it with a paragraph and observe the effect. If we like it, we can make the effort with important moments in our story. Or, since the question is about dialogue, we can make a certain character speak in iambs. And there are other kinds of meter as well. I’ve read that Dr. Seuss wrote in anapests (ta ta DUM, ta ta DUM).

Of course, if we’re going for a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones sort of voice, we should look at those to get some tips. I pulled my Fellowship of the Rings off my shelf to see what’s going on. Mostly the language is standard modern English, but I did notice, as Tangye suggests, few contractions–some, but fewer than I use. I also noticed words like shall, befall, aye, depending on who’s talking. And the phrasing seemed more formal in the dialogue of some characters, like elves.

As for colloquialisms, I’ve many times used Faugh! instead of Yuck! A source that might be helpful is Louisa May Alcott. If I remember right, Little Women is full of archaic colloquialisms.

We got delightfully into the writing weeds in this post. Here are three prompts:

∙ A time warp has brought together legendary King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Romeo, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a bionic person of the 23rd century, and your 21st century MC. The scene is a forest, so no one is sure what the year is. Some may and some may not want to return to their old lives. Write their dialogue as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

∙ For the fun of it, try putting all of this from Twain into iambs:
Now what does this man do but fall back a couple of hundred yards and then come rushing at me as hard as he could tear, with his nail-keg bent down nearly to his horse’s neck and his long spear pointed straight ahead.  I saw he meant business, so I was up the tree when he arrived.
Some of it is already done for you, like the end: so I was UP the TREE when HE arRIVED. (Maybe Twain did this on purpose, but probably not. English likes iambs!)

∙ Your MC has traveled through so many centuries that her head is spinning, and she’s returned with her mission accomplished. She’s discovered the words to a curse that will rob your villain of power forever. Pull out all the stops and have her issue the curse in language that grabs grandeur from biblical times to the distant future. Write the curse.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Nice!

    Your second post makes me wonder if there are any stories out there where a young protagonist just wants to have a quiet life, and a parent pushes them to have adventures.

  2. Zoe/TheSixthHobbit says:

    If you’re going to go back farther than 1700 and want to read some stuff from the period to help get an idea of the language, I recommend The Faerie Queene (published in 1590) and Le Morte D’Arthur (published in 1485). They both help a lot with understanding how they talked back then, and they’re actually pretty entertaining once you get into them. The Faerie Queene is poetry and Le Morte is prose. Hope this helps 🙂

  3. I saw your blog, Bethany! It looks really neat, and I can really relate…I too have said deep stuff in a casual lunch conversation, and their response were nervous laughs . ; )

  4. I was wondering… what are some tips on writing the very beginning of a story? I’ve always had trouble with beginnings. I usually end up staring at a blank page and wondering why the words won’t come. I worry about starting too soon or too late, whether I should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line, and how to make my beginning flow smoothly into the rest of my story without feeling forced. Does anyone else struggle with this, or has anyone overcome it? Any help would be appreciated, thanks!

    • Oh yes, beginnings are the hardest for me.
      Some general bits of advice that seem to help:

      Don’t stress about the first draft. Give yourself permission to write bad stuff. This is especially true of the opening line–in your finished draft, you want to give it lots of attention. To get started, you can use “once upon a time” or “there was” or any cliche thing you want, as long as it gets the juices flowing. It’ll probably change later even if it was brilliant.

      Instead of starting with story, I sometimes start with a line or two of my vision for the story. For instance “Two families escape persecution for their abilities to travel through dreams” or “The stereotypical Chosen One is a young widow with toddlers in tow”. You can also start by summarizing your ideas for the first scene: “Mira shows off her climbing abilities, has some dialogue with her sister, and hints of danger… right before the griffin carries her away!”

      Sometimes switching from computer to hand-and-paper works for me. It doesn’t always work as well for beginnings, because it’s easy to cross out or start over when coming up with a first line, but sometimes the change in medium gets things moving.

    • Make the first sentence something interesting, something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. The first sentence can even have foreshadowing to something later in the story. I’ve done that. Hint: don’t pull out the paper until you know what the first line will be. Once there’s a few words filling the blank space, the page is less terrifying.

  5. Hello there! I’ve been reading this bog for a while, but I’ve never posted a comment before. I was wondering if anyone had advice on writing friendships between characters. With my two main MC I am worried that they can’t have a casual conversation without it sounding forced and choppy. They’re personalities are very different: one loves to talk, about everything and anything. The other dosen’t. Most of her sentences are very short, which I like, because as the story continues, I want to build her self-confidence and have her become braver around other people. For now, at the beginning of my story, I need some ways to have my quiet and shy character to loosen up around her friend! Ideas?

    • Who’s the POV character? If it’s the quiet one, you can show their thoughts. If it’s the talkative one, they might coax the shy one to speak up, or be surprised when they do.

      If they’re talking about something the shy character’s really interested in/knowledgeable about, they might talk more.

      Let’s see if I can make up an example:

      “…Anyway, the guy had a dragon for a pet. I don’t know why anybody would want to keep a slimy lizard in…”

      “Oh, but they aren’t slimy at all!” Daisy’s eyes met Rose’s for the first time. Her face lit with enthusiasm. “I had a Spotted Copper once. Named Penny. She felt like fine beadwork. And she’d sit by the fire and get toasty warm and…um…Sorry. Go on. I didn’t mean to interrupt,”

        • Thank you!

          Within the 3rd person POV, we can also have a POV character. If it’s omniscient, maybe there isn’t one, but if we know one character’s thoughts and feelings, as opposed to just watching from “outside,” they’re a POV character.
          Whose eyes are we “looking through?” That’ll affect how you write the conversations.

          • The story is a third-person omniscient. I’ve been trying to incorporate the character’s feelings whenever they talk to each other. I can’t imagine trying to write it without knowing their true feelings. This nice thing about this POV is that I can choose what I want to reveal and what I want to keep hidden. 🙂

    • Are they friends from before the story starts, or is the story partly about them becoming friends? If they’re already comfortable friends, maybe the shyer character could loosen up when it’s just the two of them. Maybe the minute everyone else leaves, she’ll tell her friend everything she was thinking or observing when when everyone was around. Also, I’ve had casual friends suddenly confide in me like I’m their best friend when we are in a strange situation together. Compared to how well we know everyone else in the room, we know each other well.

      If your story is about building confidence, you probably want your shy character to always feel respect and appreciation from her friend. I’m an introvert, and a number of my best friends are extroverts. What’s more, a couple of them come from a large family of extroverts and are skilled at listening to several people talking at once, and talking themselves, and understanding all lines of the conversation. One way they have made me feel respected is that they give me space to speak. They know I won’t talk over anyone else, even if they wouldn’t be the least bit offended if I did. They sometimes even ask me what I’m thinking if I just look like I have something to say.

      One more thing: the one who’s quiet might stay quiet around the talkative one, and be perfectly comfortable. She may show it by laughing at her friend’s expressiveness, or reminding the friend to continue a story after being interrupted, or add her own short but funny comments that she wouldn’t add if there were many other people around.

      • Thank you!
        The characters are friends before the story starts, but I feel as if the shy one does feel comfortable around her friend, but she simply doesn’t feel the need to talk very often. Writing about an introverted MC is very tricky for me, because I am an extrovert. The talkative MC has been helping drag the story (and the conversation!) along. I can relate to her a lot more than the other. My main solution right now is to dive deeper into my MC’s personality and figure out what she does want to talk about, and build my conversations from there.

  6. Once again, “Save What you Write” has proved to be awesome advice!

    About 4 years ago, I had a weird dream where Prometheus got rescued by Jesus instead of Hercules. I tried to write a story from it, but the ending just didn’t work.

    There’s a new anthology out, called Mysterion, looking for specifically Christian stories. I put made-up religions in my stories sometimes, but usually not real ones. But I dug out this story, and I just might have come up with an ending for it. (It may not be theologically correct, but that’s a whole different issue. 🙂 )

    So thanks for the great advice, Gail!

  7. I have a question. Someone in my writing group told of an influential childhood memory that I would love to use for a character. He came home with a bloody injury, and his mother berated him for staining the shirt. He came to the conclusion that if no one cared about him, he could do whatever he wanted. This was life-changing. Anyway, I suddenly realized that this would be a really good backstory for the character I’m developing now… but I don’t want to copy his experience exactly. So, what do you do if you come up with a perfect idea, but someone else has already taken it?

    • Sadly, that sounds like the sort of thing that could happen to more than one person, so I don’t see why you can’t use it, especially if you made it a different kind of injury/different article of clothing/change the character’s gender, or otherwise tweak it.

    • Boil it down to it’s basics: Parent cares more about the damaged item than the injured child.

      From there it could go any direction: Clothing could be stained, torn, burned (by fire or a run-in with a dragon). In our world, a vehicle could be wrecked. A boat could be damaged or sunk (or, more on the caliber of a stained shirt, an oar could be lost). Just about any item that can be carried could be broken in a fall.

  8. My favorite “old timey” word is “indeed” in place of “yeah.”

    Reading Jane Austen books might help. The language in those books is understandable but definitely an older style.

    Personally, I just give my characters an accent. I don’t write that they have an accent and I don’t show the accent, but when I’m playing a scene in my head before writing, they have accents. This helps “flavor” their word choices. Someone from the country might have a US southern accent, a nobleman might have a British one, and a foreign ambassador may have a Japanese accent on their English. On paper they all read the same, but hearing the accents in my head makes me write “yeah,” “quite,” and “oh, yes yes” respectively, for example.

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