Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades. For a complete list of her awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Dialogue: Part VIII of a Ten-Part Reflection on Creative Writing

 Dialogue is particularly tricky in historical fiction because this is when the characters, who by definition live in a different age and society, come most to life. Because characters are supposed to be embedded in their own time, it is tempting to put antiquated speech into their mouths in order make them sound like they are "historical." The problem with that is that most authors don't have a good grasp on how people actually spoke in times past, and the problems get greater the farther back in time a novel is set. It is useful therefore to segment the discussion into two parts: Novels set in the ancient and medieval eras, and novels set in the last couple of centuries.


Remember, the language of every book is the language in which it is written or into which it is translated. That is not necessarily the language used by the characters in the book. Any book written in a language not used by the characters is in effect a translation. Thus for novels written about periods in the distant past or lost civilizations, the dialogue cannot accurately reproduce the language of the time and place, it can only provide a modern translation of the language used in those places and cultures.

This does not mean, however, that readers want a book set in, say, Ancient Egypt to be littered with modern American idiom. If an ancient Pharaoh is depicted speaking like Donald Trump (crude, insulting, disjointed and juvenile) then most readers will see the book as a satire of America in the Trump era rather than a work of historical fiction.

In short, if a novelist wants his/her book to be read and treated as historical fiction evoking a past time and place, then the dialogue must have a “timeless” quality about it, divorced from the jargon, dialects, and “buzzwords” of today. It is not OK for a medieval knight to say “Gotcha!” and “Waste him!” or for a Roman centurion to say “Roger that!” and “Awesome.”

However, it is just as counterproductive to use stilted, antiquated language that is, ultimately, no more accurate than modern slang, yet equally distracting to the reader. So forget the “doths,” and “thees”. Don’t replace “my” with “mine” or place adjectives after nouns (“the evening dark had set mine lady’s heart afire…”) Unless you are writing about Elizabethan England, don’t try to sound like William Shakespeare — and maybe not even then as you will undoubtedly fail.

EXAMPLE ONE: In the following excerpt from Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer

the text uses words specific to Ancient Sparta such as “kleros”, “perioikoi” and “helot” as well as terminology from the period such as himation. The characters express contemporary — not modern — notions of morality. Yet the language used is neither antiquated nor modern.

“I wanted to talk to you about something,” Nikostratos confided.

It was pitch dark, and although it had been one of those sunny days that promised the return of spring, with the sunset winter seemed to have returned with a vengeance. Leonidas paused to wrap his himation more tightly around him.

“It is not good for you to keep that perioikoi girl, the one picked up for soliciting, on your kleros. People are talking about you.”

“People, or my brother Brotus?”

Nikostratos frowned and insisted, “People — including your brother Brotus.” He stopped and faced Leonidas. “You’re a bachelor, Leonidas. You can’t keep a whore on your kleros without people talking about it.”

“You mean it would be better if I were married?”

“Yes — because then your wife would be in charge of your kleros, and since no self-respecting woman would let her husband keep a rivl under her roof, people would recognize that, whatever else the girl did, she did not warm your bed.”

“I don’t see how the temperature of my bed is anyone’s business.”

“The morality of every Spartan citizen is the business of us all,” Nikostratos reminded him.

“The girl was thrown out of her own home for being a victim of Argive brutality, and you want me to throw her out again just because some tongues are wagging behind my back? Listen: if you hear someone say a word against me, tell them to say it to my face!” Leonidas was getting worked up.

“Stop being stubborn, Leo. This doesn’t have to be blown out of proportion. This girl isn’t your kin. She is perioikoi. You are not in any way responsible for what happened to her.”

“Aren’t I?” Leonidas stopped, making Nikostratos stare at him. “Aren’t we all? What happened on Kythera was our fault. We left it undefended, then took over a week to respond. All the while, the Argives were rampaging across the island — plundering, burning, raping and murdering. There were scores of girls who suffered what Kleta did, only most of them are now dead. Because we failed them.”

“We can’t be everywhere at once.”

“We collect taxes and tolls from the perioikoi, don’t we? We demand their absolute loyalty and require them to send their sons with us as auxiliary troops whenever we operate outside our borders, don’t we? e even expect them to help put down helot unrest if necessary.”

Nikostratos was frowning. “What are you driving at, Leo?

EXAMPLE TWO: This scene from Defender of Jerusalem

shows a confrontation between King Guy of Jerusalem and one of his most powerful barons, Balian d’Ibelin, Lord of Nablus. It is extremely tense because the King has called up the feudal army to attack one of his vassals, the Count of Tripoli. Ibelin knows that an attack on Tripoli will destroy the Kingdom of Jerusalem — and so does the King’s elder brother Aimery. The language is modern (although men are referred to in the medieval fashion by their titles rather than their names) and not fully sanitized, but it is probably not the language I would put in the mouths of contemporary leaders quarreling either. The period is evoked by the use of medieval forms of address (my lord, your grace) and references to feudal obligations not by creating artificially “old-fashioned” language.

When the squire was gone, Aimery confronted his brother. “Edessa’s clever plan may have opened the doors of the Holy Sepulcher, and Heraclius and Sibylla between them may have put a crown on your pretty golden locks, but a fat count, a stupid woman, and a debauched priest cannot keep you on your throne. More important: they cannot save your ass from Salah ad-Din! Do I make myself clear?”

Balian held his breath, knowing that Aimery was the only man in the world who could talk to Guy de Lusignan like this — even now the elder brother to the young brother, no matter that the young was an anointed king. Guy wat with his jaws clenched and his face flushed, but he did not interrupt or talk back.

Aimery continued, “You can either rip out your own guts by attacking Tripoli and leave two gutted carcasses for the Saracens to finish off, or you can reconcile with Tripoli and reunite this Kingdom.”

“How the hell can I reconcile with a man who refuses to accept me as his king?” Guy shouted at his older brother. In that instant, Balian saw Guy’s fear and insecurity and held his breath in hope.

“By begging him!” Aimery answered coldly, looking his brother in the eye. “Beg him on your knees if you have to. Tell him you need him. Thank him for his past service. Flatter him, cajole him, honor him, humor him. But stop treating him like an enemy and make him an ally!”

When Guy did not answer, Ibelin risked speaking up. Cautiously, he noted, “I have spoken to Tripoli, your grace. He called his agreement with Salah ad-Din ‘defensive.’ His wife expressed sincere fear that you planned to attack her lands—”

“Nonsense! Why should I attack Tiberias?”

“Why, indeed?” his brother answered pointedly.

Guy glared at him. “What I meant is, I have no quarrel with his lady. It is Tripoli who has refused to pay homage. Until he does—”

“No! Stop! He’s checkmated ou with the alliance with Salah ad-Din. He does not have to come to heel under the circumstances. All Ibelin is right about how strong Tiberias is. ith the forces you have, you’ll hardly be able to invest it. You cannot force Tripoli to submit. You need to give him a reason to bend his knee.”

Petulantly, Guy protested, “HE was demanding Beirut, and refusing to give account for his expenditure as regent—”

“Forget it! Forget all your grievances against him. Forget everything but the essential fact that you need his two hundred knights if you want to still be king six months from now.”

“You expect me to just capitulate? To grovel at his feet?” Guy whined, already sounding small and deflated.

Ibelin took a deep breath, and with a glance at Aimery noted gently, “That won’t be necessary. Tripoli knows how damaging this fight is. He loves Jerusalem. If you demonstrate our goodwill by disbanding the army and returning to Jerusalem, and then give him a bridge to walk over, he will find his way.”


In contrast, novels set anytime in the last century depict an era in which the language used is completely comprehensible to us today. We don’t actually need to translate the language of the characters in these books (unless they are set in a foreign setting) and the language therefore can be more authentic. In short, in novels set in the 20th century, authors should indeed make every effort to use the idiom of the period in which the novel is set.

Obviously, that still means that modern slang is inappropriate. People in the First World War did not talk about being “cool” or “chilled,” and attractive women weren’t “hot chics.” Equally difficult for some modern writers is that some terms that are now offensive were acceptable in the 1930s and 1940s. For example, in much of the U.S. adult black men really were still addressed as “boy.” Another ticklish problem is finding appropriate expletives and terms for cursing. Modern terms were simply not used, but the language then used (e.g. “bloody”) does not offend the modern reader — and so does not convey the emotion desired.

EXAMPLE THREE: Writing about the RAF in WWII required learning an entirely new vocabulary of terms — and using it correctly. I include a glossary in my novels set in this environment because not all the terms are intuitive. But it isn’t only the language itself that was different. Influenced by the use of radio communication, the RAF tended to speak in incomplete sentences — a staccato speech pattern that is well illustrated by the following brief exchange from Where Eagles Never Flew


Shakespeare woke him in the dark. “Time to get up, Robin.”

“What time is it?”

“Time to get up.”

“What time is that?”

“If you insist on the ugly details: 3:25 am. The lorry will be in the square in five minutes.”

“Dawn Patrol.”

“Isn’t that the name of a flick?”

“With David Niven, I think.”

“I don’t think it had a very good ending.”

“Not for everyone.”

EXAMPLE FOUR. This exchange, also taken from Where Eagles Never Flew, includes more of the RAF terminology and jargon, but it is also important for showing how language can convey the culture of an era or institution. The same incident if playing out at a USAAF squadron would sound entirely different.

“We thought you’d bought it, sir,” Woody admitted. He sounded more stunned than gratified.

“Not yet, so you’ll have to postpone the party. Is there tea anywhere?”

“I’ll get you some, sir,” Ginger offered, ducking back into the dispersal.

The others were still staring. “I understand you got a Heinkel, Woody.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well done. Donohue?”

“I got is some good bursts at a 110 and saw the starboard engine catch fire, but didn’t see him go in. Got distracted by a Messerschmitt.”


‘There was a bloody great free-for-all after you — I mean — we came out the other side of the bomber formation and got jumped by a hoard of Messerschmitts. F/O Ware tried to climb into them, but they were already coming down, and one cut in from of me. I got in a good squirt and when I looked back, there he was streaking down with a long tail of smoke. I know he went in.”

“Very likely, but the 109s were coming down because they’d been bounced by Spitfires at higher altitude,” Priestman pointed out. “You probably shot at an already dead pilot.”

Eton frowned. “But, sir, he passed right through my sights.”

“What speed do you think he was going?”

“400 mph at least, sir!”

“And how far away was he?”

“Maybe three hundred yards — four at the most.” The others burst out laughing.

Priestman waited for them to quiet down. “Eton, do you want to step inside and let me give you a short lesson on the Browning machine gun.” It was not a question, and the boy looked decidedly disheartened as he stepped into the comparatively dim light of the dispersal hut.

“Trigonometry wouldn’t hurt either, sir,” Sutton called after them.

“Oh, and, sir?” It was Donohue.

Priestman stepped back to the door and looked out expectantly. “I just wanted to let you know that I am not a virgin.” There were guffaws of laugher from the others, and Priestman shook his head and turned away. “Eton—”

The telephone rang. Paralysis.

“606 Squadron Dispersal.”

The clock ticked. The wind blew. The pilots of 606 hung in suspended animation. No one was breathing.

“One moment, sir.” The clerk turned to Priestman. “It’s the Adjutant, sir. He’d like to speak to you.”

Priestman took the receiver. The others exhaled and resumed their activities. Eton fussed with is silk cravat. “Priestman.”

“Congratulations, sir! You’ve just been awarded the DFC. The wire’s just come in — and they didn’t even know about the two you got today. I’m so pleased for you, sir! I’ve rarely known anyone who deserved it so much!” Mickey sounded so sincere, Robin was touched.

“Thank you, Mickey. Could you do me a favour?”

“Of course. What would you like me to do?”

“Organise something. A dance. With a real band. Something everyone can enjoy. The erks, too, and the WAAF, of course. Not in the Mess; the cooks and stewards are overworked as it is. Do you think you could do that?”

“For tonight, you mean?” Mickey sounded overwhelmed.

“No. There’s no rush. What day is it today?”


“All right. Thursday or Friday.”

“Don’t worry, sir. I’ll fix something up.”


There was a commotion going on outside. Robin pu his head out the window to see what it was about.

Kiwi was towering amidst the others, still in his Mae West and parachute. The latter was dragging along behind him and occasionally billowed up as it caught the wind. “Down, boy, down!” Kiwi admonished the chute when it tugged at him. “Behave yourself!”

“Where the devil did you come from?” Priestman asked, very relieved to see him.

“Ahhhh!” Kiwi reacted as if he’d seen a ghost. “You were the one who blew up!” He crossed himself.

“I did nothing of the sort, but I hear you collided with a bomber and wrecked your Hurricane. That’s what comes of not keeping your distance as ordered.”

“I get your point, Skipper.” Kiwi grinned at him, and then turned to admonish his parachute, “Behave! You’re in company!”

“And Kiwi, get out of that useles ‘chute and collect a packed one.”

“See! You’ve got yourself posted!” Kiwi told the parachute. “I warned you not to much about in front of the CO!”

Robin shook his head and withdrew back inside the desperal hut to give Eton his lesson on the effectiveness of gunfire from different ranges. But the telephone was ringing again.

“Bloody thing!”

“606 Squadron Dispersal…. SCRAMBLE! SQUADRON SCRAMBLE!”

For more about my novels visit my website at: http://helenapschrader.com

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