Writing Right with Dmitri - Writing the Times

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Writing the Times

Writing right.

The other night, we stopped watching a movie because we were bored.

It was a horror movie.

How, you may well ask, can you make a horror movie so boring that the audience falls asleep? Let me tell you a bit about this film. It’s called The Yellow Wallpaper. Allegedly, the film is based on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ground-breaking short story describing a woman’s descent into madness amid appalling interior decoration. Frankly, the only thing this film has in common with Ms Gilman’s short story is the wallpaper, which is large and in charge and extremely yellow. The rest of it is basically three people in old-fashioned clothes getting frightened by ghosts in a weird house, somewhere in ‘America’, we’re told. But that wasn’t why we gave up.

We were interested in the film because of Gilman, of course, and because the lead was being played by Juliet Landau, a talented woman who can pull off a period costume like nobody’s business. She’s an actor, not a movie star, and her co-star, Veronica Cartwright is no slouch, either. No surprise there: Ms Cartwright’s being doing this since she was a toddler, having gone to school on 50s TV with Beaver Cleaver. Anyway, we expected better.

It wasn’t all the running up and down stairs with candelabra that did us in. It was the dialogue.

  • When Charlotte told her husband, ‘You’re overreacting,’ I winced. Over-reacting? They explicitly said this was 1895.
  • When the doctor inquired after her health, and Charlotte replied with an eyeroll, ‘I’m fine,’ I rolled my eyes, too.
  • When Charlotte’s husband snapped, ‘We’re running out of options, here,’ I decided I had had enough, and turned it off.

Do not do this, people. Have some pity.

Writing People Talking in the Past

Writing about any time other than the present is tricky. Even if you were around then, it’s hard to remember what people said in the days before the internet, isn’t it? Worse, those old expressions sound quaint and foreign in our minds.

The problem gets worse the farther back you go. Writing in perfect idiom would leave your reader both bored and unable to comprehend. Think about it. If Bernard Cornwell had written the Sharpe novels in contemporary English – contemporary for the Napoleonic era, I mean – we’d still be wondering what happened at Talavera. Nobody talks like that anymore.

Obviously, we can’t give people in 1895 dialogue that is 100% authentic. Don’t believe me? Here’s some genuine dialogue from ‘The Yellow wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman:

"You know the place is doing you good," he said, "and really, dear, I don't care to renovate the house just for a three months' rental."

"Then do let us go downstairs," I said, "there are such pretty rooms there."

Then he took me in his arms and called me a blessed little goose, and said he would go down to the cellar, if I wished, and have it whitewashed into the bargain.
  – Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper.

There isn’t a lot of direct-speech dialogue in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, but the story is written in first person, and it’s colloquial. The increasingly unreliable narrator refers to the wallpaper as ‘horrid’. Her husband asks her to ‘improve the shining hours by going to sleep.’ If you wrote like that, nobody would get it. I know I have a few readers who’ll get the reference, but really…

We can’t write like that. That horse has left the barn. But there’s a difference between making your heroine simper in antiquated babytalk and turning her into Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. I was afraid that if the movie had gone on any longer, I’d hear, ‘That wallpaper has got to go. It’s so last year!’ No, a balance must be struck. Please.

There’s a way to avoid screamingly obvious anachronisms while making sense to your reader. You don’t have to write like Dickens, just because the story is set in the mid-19th Century. Just use judgement to avoid moving the whole cast into the 21st.

Anachronisms ‘R Us

That is, of course, unless you want to use anachronisms. In that case, there are a couple of experts you could study. This is a pleasant diversion for writer and reader, and helps to draw an interesting contrast between the attitudes of then and now. The first thing to remember, though, is that your reader may not know it’s an anachronism unless you make it obvious. After all, there’s no use in slipping in little glitches in your obscure Anglo-Saxon dialect – unless, of course, you’re writing a pastiche for medievalists.

Speaking of medievalists…

Professor TH White knew that medieval-type talk was going to pale quickly. He knew that because he was a medievalist himself. So he used a clever technique to get us interested in his story – which is excellent by the way. His anachronisms serve two purposes: to remind us that ‘people were different then’, and to help us understand the parallels in human experience. Oh, yeah, and he makes us laugh.

”Have some more port," said Sir Ector. "You need it after all this questin'."

"Splendid day," said Sir Grummore. "Only they never seem to kill nowadays. Run twenty-five miles and then mark to ground or lose him altogether. The worst is when you start a fresh quest."

"We kill all our giants cubbin'," said Sir Ector. "After that they give you a fine run, but get away."

"Run out of scent," said Sir Grummore, "I dare say. It's always the same with these big giants in a big country. They run out of scent."
  – TH White, The Once and Future King.

The conceit of treating the pursuit of marauding giants like a fox-hunt is pretty good. Even better is the national anthem he comes up with, which starts, ‘God save King Pendragon, long may his reign drag on…’

A scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry depicting William the Conqueror on his horse.

This approach works well if you’re thrust far enough back in history. Think of Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. We’re sure Androcles called his wife something, but it probably wasn’t exactly ‘my pet’. And that wonderful comedy/action film, The Knight’s Tale, where the jousting audience sings ‘We Will Rock You’. There are lots of possibilities for creative, er, anachronisms.

Just let us in on it, please. And don’t try to pull off a 19th-century heroine who says, ‘Puh-leeze’ or, ‘Whatever.’

Not unless she turns out to have arrived in a tardis – in which case she can claim to be speaking Ancient Celtic.


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Dmitri Gheorgheni

05.08.13 Front Page

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