~ O. Henry, "The Handbook of Hymen"
For me, the handling of dialogue is one of the things that can make or break historical fiction. And I don't just mean dialogue that sounds too much like our modern idiom or uses anachronistic phrases. Anyone who has a good grasp on the idea of historical fiction and history knows that a hundred years ago or more, people didn't talk the same way we do—but how they interpret that difference in their fiction can vary. Let me hark back again to that excellent post by Jennifer Freitag on being too conscious of one's historical setting, being a little too anxious to point out and emphasize the difference between "back then" and today instead of just letting the reader see it. I think the same thing definitely applies to dialogue. We don't want it to be jarringly modern, but we don't want it to be jarringly "historical" either—by that I mean writing an exaggerated form of what we believe is old-fashioned speech.
I think there are two main pitfalls where dialogue is involved, depending on your setting and what kind of characters you're working with. (I'm thinking specifically of American historical fiction here.) First, there's the tendency to simply make all of your dialogue stilted and over-formal when you write characters who are refined or of a higher social class, under the impression that it sounds "Victorian." On the other hand, there's the tendency to use a broad dialect full of phonetically-spelled-out words and plentiful droppin' of letters if you're writing cowboys or Westerners in general. Both of these styles can either ring false right away, or else get pretty wearing over the course of a book.
How to avoid this? Well, I can't say I have all the answers. Dialogue is a rather subtle question all the way around, and it may depend to some degree on personal taste. But one thing that I think has helped me a lot is reading old books. I'm firmly convinced that books written around the time you're researching are some of the most valuable historical resources, in many different ways—and that includes dialogue! Not only does older fiction give you an idea of how people thought and what they said, its gives you a feel for how they said it. Of course, it goes without saying that no fictional dialogue is an exact replica of how people really sound when they speak—all you have to do is read a transcribed interview to see that. But when you read an older book, you're getting a writer's impression of the general way in which the people of their day spoke—and that's pretty much what you're going for in writing your own historical fiction.
Do you have any pet peeves about dialogue in historical fiction? What do you do to try and develop a realistic way of speaking for your characters?
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image: "The Gossips" by Norman Rockwell (source)