In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be discussing how I approached writing dialogue in a novel set during the Dark Ages.
Writing dialogue is always a challenge, for dialogue serves so many functions and so is central to the success or otherwise of any novel. Dialogue advances the plot, provides exposition, and above all, reveals character. I believe dialogue should fundamentally come from character, and that the words they speak, and sometimes the words they don't speak, should expose their beliefs, desires and fears.
My intention (and only readers can judge if I have in anyway succeeded!) is to give each character a distinctive 'voice'. For example, Hengist speaks in a coarse, earthy manner, while King Tytila's speech is bombastic - well suited to a man drunk on past glories and not used to being challenged or contradicted. I want readers to see the characters in the story as flesh and blood, and not just authorial mouthpieces spouting stilted words - each character's responses must seem credible and in-keeping with their background and personality. Hopefully this allows the reader to move through the trappings of an unfamiliar, heightened world to better understand the motivations of the characters.
As a writer, it is important to keep a keen ear for everyday dialogue, for the rhythms and cadences of speech - I listen out for interesting turns of phrase, quirky responses and accents. However, dialogue within This Sacred Isle provided some particular challenges! In essence, the Anglo Saxon characters of this time speak a 'foreign' language (Old English), although one which was the foundation of modern English. I do not speak or write Old English, however, within This Sacred Isle I wanted to catch a flavour of this language, in particular the kennings (two-words phrases used to describe an object, usually employing a metaphor). Although not a literate people, I believe the early Anglo-Saxons had a potent sense of poetry, and it should not be forgotten that these people were settlers - perhaps their language, including their kennings, helped them make sense of their new land and gave them a link to their ancestral home in continental Europe.
When writing dialogue I always take a minimalist approach, with a sparing use of adverbs and attributions. I find this reduces the sense of author intrusion, strengthens the impact of the dialogue and provides a more natural rhythm and flow. I cut back to the barest essentials to give (where appropriate) a clipped, urgent quality to dialogue. I would not say this suits every story (nor every writer) but this felt especially true to the world of This Sacred Isle.
What do you find most challenging about writing dialogue? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.