Top 5 tricks for writing for a time period

Speeches are a great source of inspiration for dialogue!
Speeches are a great source of inspiration for dialogue!

One of the hurdles of writing dialogue for a story based in the past (in my case 1930s London) is that you have to keep reminding yourself of how people talked way back then. Everything from slang to formality of language has to be kept in mind — even for the simplest scenes.

So here is my Top 5 List of tips:

  1. Read as much non-fiction as you can from the time and place you are writing about. This can include newspaper articles and magazines, but in the case of really really bygone eras, may include translations a limited number of books preserved from that period.
  2. Read published speeches, honestly, though more formal than your dialogue is going to be, I find the way people wrote things that they then spoke aloud to an audience is a great source.
  3. Read other writer’s fiction that is based in the same era (so people like us!)
  4. Use the internet as a resource (obviously). I for example have two dialects to keep track of — Portia’s which is based out of 1930’s San Francisco and everyone else she interacts with (who are very much based out of 1930’s London). I like to use University Libraries, like this one to get ideas about how people wrote to each other and spoke about events happening at the time.
  5. Watch movies from that era (if you can) or about that era (in the hopes that the filmmaker did HER due-diligance in researching the dialogue before committing pixel to film). For the 1930s in London, Wikipedia has a lovely list I have been culling through of films released in this time period. I find after watching one of these movies I am usually inspired to re-write a scene of dialogue to try and make it even more authentic.

What are your tips and tricks friends?

Author: Angela Misri

Novelist, Digital Strategist & Journalist

3 thoughts on “Top 5 tricks for writing for a time period”

  1. I didn’t have to worry about going back in time for my first book, but I did have to learn modern Hiberno-English, which I got from reading Irish newspapers online daily for three years, with a little help from a trip to Ireland, and about 200 fiction and nonfiction books by or about Irish people (including several Gaeilge lesson sets, to learn the influence of Irish grammar on Hiberno-English usage). I copied and pasted thousands of snippets of H-E to a spreadsheet workbook, so that I could put in a keyword and pull out examples.

    BTW, I did not write in dialect. I heard too many different Irish accents when I was over there, and anyhow, I don’t think it adds anything to a story, because most attempts to reproduce accent in writing end up being well-nigh illegible. (I think readers can imagine dialect better than most of us can write it.)

    But I’m having to go back in time with my second book, which takes place between 1907-1935.

    Thanks for the suggestion about consulting speeches–I hadn’t thought about that resource (recorded as well as written). But I wonder about using translations into English–in my experience, they’re often more interpretation than translation, and you need to know what kind of English your translator is using (Hiberno? Anglo? American? ESL?)

  2. I believe you can over research a piece. How many great movies were made about the Roman Empire where the Romans had British accents? Of course screenwriting and fiction are different animals. And it depends on your reason for writing the piece as well.

    1. Oh I know. I was actually thinking of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves last night and wondering if I should write a little NB about not relying on BAD research sources.

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