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Dialogue or Insight Into the Thoughts of a Character

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Feb 6 13 6:31 PM

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Came across this on Biff Barnes'  Stories to Tell site, something we were discussing recently here on the forum.  How to write dialogue or imagine thoughts of characters when they lived before our time, as in writing family history.  Barnes uses the writing of Tom Wolfe as a guide.  Very interesting article.  Wasn't sure where the original post was here in the forum, so I just started a new topic.

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#1 [url]

Feb 6 13 7:32 PM

Thanks Betty Ann. I had been to this sit previously but not seen this article. Trying to write dialog for something that happened 150 years ago. But I can see how it would make more interesting reading than a normal Family Narrative like I posted this morning. Obviously in my case the dialog would have to be in English and not the language of my 3x-great-grandfather. But it might be worth a try.


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#2 [url]

Feb 6 13 7:38 PM

Since I have no journals, diaries or letters, I think I will avoid trying to write dialog for African-Americans in the Civil War period. I'm afraid it would come off like stereotypic language. My husband could probably do a great job at it, since he can write in vernacular southern black dialect very well. It's a cultural thing. So, I think I'll stick to memoir & with what I know.

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#4 [url]

Feb 7 13 3:26 AM

I am hesitant to use novel techniques in non-fiction, especially dialogue. I do try to speculate on the possible thoughts and feelings of an individual but only as an observer and I always use words like "may have", "perhaps", "it's possible", - or if I'm confident about something given the evidence "must have", "probably", etc. I just know some readers foolishly already assume novels are totally historical accurate - the last thing I want is for readers to misunderstand a speculative scene with dialogue is actually what happened and what was said, word for word, because it's supposed to be non-fiction. The article talks about how you can extract or reconstruct dialogue from journals, letters, memos, newspapers, etc. But I consider myself very lucky when I have sources like that to work with! I don't think it's an option in most cases.

Maybe I will do some more scene setting though. I do have a good understanding of certain places during the right time period - maybe I should be more descriptive.

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#5 [url]

Feb 7 13 4:17 AM

That appears to be one of my biggest problems too.  It's a novel if you make it up, right?  I have a few newspaper clippings, but no journals, etc. 

Connie from WV stuck here in Florida

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#6 [url]

Feb 7 13 5:08 AM

In my opinion, the best example here would be Alex Haley's, Roots....or even for that matter, Joyce Carol Oates', The Gravedigger's Daughter. It is no longer a memoir, but a work of fiction based on a true story.

The best illustration of dialog within a memoir, I think, is found in John Paul Godges', O Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. Most of the dialog passages come from conversations which had be relayed to him by his parents. The majority of the book, however, is written as narrative. 

Tom, I had the same thought about enlisting my husband into the project. I'm not so sure he'd agree, though. Perhaps if I get a draft completed and allow him to read it, but I'm not even so sure he would read it. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

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#7 [url]

Feb 7 13 6:02 AM

This is definitely a dilemma for family history writers. I'm working on a newsletter that might help you put some of it into perspective and give you some guidelines to hold to that you may be more comfortable with, but at the end of the day it still becomes a personal choice. The best tool as Deb suggests it to look to other authors to see how they handled the situation in their own books. 

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#8 [url]

Feb 7 13 3:07 PM

I'm not writing dialogue for the ancestors, but I'm writing from my own personal viewpoint.  I have a great grandmother, Nellie, who according to the records I've found online, had a baby, my grandfather actually, and gave the baby her maiden name.  They appear in the 1900 census living with her mother, a widow, and her four sisters.  Then I find a marriage record for her and my great grandfather in 1902, when the baby is two.  On the marriage license, it reports that the groom already had a prior marriage and was divorced.  

Well now, I can assume that Nellie had an affair with a married man, who was the father of my grandfather.  

Then, after they get married, they have another child, Etta.  Etta ends up in an institution for the "feeble minded."  Nellie had a handicapped little girl and she had to be institutionalized.  

I can easily assume and write how hard life must have been for Nellie.  She died of congestive heart failure in her forties, after a rough life.  I can't actually write dialogue, it just isn't that kind of a book.  However, I can tell how I feel about what happened to Nellie, and how I might have felt back in those days having an illegitimate child, living with my family, and having to put my little girl in an institution.

Hope this might help someone.

Bettyann Schmidt rhinegirl.blogspot.cim

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#9 [url]

Feb 7 13 3:26 PM

Debnc, strange that you bring up Roots. That miniseries is what got me to start my genealogy research in 1977 - Chicken George and all. In fact I wrote something in my journal last night about it being the spark. Luckily it prompted me to talk more when visiting the once or twice a year we made the 1100 mike trip home.


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#10 [url]

Feb 8 13 2:34 AM

 The best illustration of dialog within a memoir, I think, is found in John Paul Godges', O Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century. Most of the dialog passages come from conversations which had be relayed to him by his parents. The majority of the book, however, is written as narrative. 


That reminds me of the story in my family that when my Nan started speaking Italian, her father put his foot down and said "No, we're American now, we speak English" and from then on, Italian was banned from the house. But that's the only case I can really think of where dialogue was passed down the generations.

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#11 [url]

Feb 8 13 10:07 AM

Interesting topic! This is one I struggled with for many years. I started writing my book as nonfiction. Met with an editor from a university press who was interested in publishing the book and suggested changing to creative nonfiction using dialogue and fiction techniques. I wrote a rough draft in creative nonfiction, but it felt like it was half nonfiction and half fiction. One day, I realized I was writing a book I would never pick up and read. I read fiction, primarily women's stories. My three favorite authors are Sandra Dallas, Sharyn McCrumb, and Jane Kirkpatrick. By this time, the story of the widow of the man who was hanged had captivated me and I began to think what a fiction book would look like with her as the protagonist. Jane Kirkpatrick writes historical fiction based on women's stories. One series features her grandmother, an early photographer. Jane is my mentor and I talked with her about changing to historical fiction. Once I made my decision, I have never looked back. Even when I told the editor I'd decided to change and he said he was no longer interested in the book.

Writing historical fiction allows me to write the story with a character's motive, attitude and emotion. It took some time for these real people to become characters in my mind. The events are real and really happened. In some ways, this makes it even more emotionally charged for me to write. This week I am writing about my g-g-uncle having to sell his ranch to his enemy in order to raise money for his bond. The same day he signed the deed and got out of jail, his wife had their second child. Now he's home. How does he tell his wife he sold the ranch, their home? 

My advice for those trying to figure out the best way to write your stories: Think about what you like to read. Is it nonfiction, creative nonfiction or fiction? Who is your audience? Is it your family, history buffs, or a wider audience? When you find the right format for your story, you will know it. 

Jane Kirkpatrick once told me, "The story wants to be told and will find a way to be revealed." There is great power in a story.    

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#12 [url]

Feb 9 13 4:53 AM

That's amazing Gayle, I would love to write some fictional stories of my ancestors and have gotten as far as making an outline and putting down a few scenes but I usually end up deleting them because they're not very good. I just don't think I'm a good enough writer to do fiction. But if you are, why not do both? It doesn't have to be one or the other - though granted, two different projects is double the work.

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#13 [url]

Feb 9 13 7:22 AM

Enjoyed reading this, Gayle.  I'm thinking when I write my mother's history--after I finally finish this one about my Dad's family--I might write it as fiction.  It's a hard story to write as NF, though the family would know the real story even if I wrote it as fiction.  One of those stories that is not really worth writing if you leave the truth out.  At any rate, I like what you're doing and it's inspiring.  I need to think more about it.

Bettyann Schmidt rhinegirl.blogspot.cim

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#14 [url]

Feb 9 13 10:36 AM

Historychick, learning to write fiction is hard work for me. I really struggle with it as a perfectionist. I rewrote the first chapter numerous times before I finally felt like I had the voice right. The first draft is going SO slow, but I know it has to be written and it doesn't have to be perfect. I am also slow at coming up with scene ideas that aren't events I have documented, but are scenes that are necessary to move the story forward. It's almost like I have to give myself permission to use my imagination into how things may have happened to bring about the event. I also thought about writing a nonfiction book, too, but the editor discouraged doing both. Whenever this book is published, I might reconsider it.

Betty, one reason I chose to use the widow as the protagonist is because she never doubted that her husband was innocent. In the end, she won a court case with a verdict that the cattle belonged to her husband. Based on this, I can write the book from her point of view and not have to say whether the men really changed brands on the cattle or not, a question that will never be answered for certain. I even had a lawyer look through the court cases with me and he came to the same conclusion as I did. So, yes, fiction is a good way to deal with truth that may be difficult to write about in nonfiction.   

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#15 [url]

Feb 9 13 12:35 PM

The only time I ever use dialogue is when quoting from a letter or journal or another relative's writings about the family.  My insights into the thoughts of my characters I put forth in my own perspective.  I wouldn't ever invent dialogue but then I'm not writing fiction, nor do I read fiction in order to know what good dialogue even sounds like. I hesitate to add creative imaginings into my stories for fear that two or three generations beyond me might actually attribute it to fact and generate a whole new wave of family lore with no real basis. But, to each their own, that's just my way.  Non-fiction.

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#16 [url]

Feb 9 13 12:58 PM

My story is about Yorkshire folk in Australia. Instead of putting a big effort into their accent I just threw in the odd 'nowt'  to give some sense of their heritage.
I invented most of the dialogue as my story is written as a novel. A lot of the dialogue was based on news articles, fortunately the writers of the day actually quoted my ancestors and others. Especially the court room scenes. Judges quoted, witnesses quoted.
It was an easy choice for me to write this as a novel. 

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#17 [url]

Feb 9 13 1:00 PM

Gaylegresham -
"It's almost like I have to give myself permission to use my imagination into how things may have happened to bring about the event."

Perfectly said.  I was exactly the same.

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#18 [url]

Feb 9 13 1:07 PM

I suppose to a large extent its what you feel comfortable reading, feel comfortable writing and what sits best with the narrative. 

As someone who doesn't read fiction, I feel there is a huge difference between added colour based on generic research (eg after looking at pictures/visiting the places/reading about life in cotton mills) and added colour based on imagination. Whatever techniques we use, I personally feel we should be honest about where research-based writing stops and where imagination starts, if only for future generations as Samantha says.

But that's just me.

Springhill History

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#19 [url]

Feb 9 13 3:55 PM

I love historical fiction, and that's just what I think of when I make stuff up.  I don't know that it does my ancestors justice, and I'd hate for someone reading my history to latch onto the made up stuff and not get a true picture of our ancestors lives.

Connie from WV stuck here in Florida

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#20 [url]

Feb 9 13 7:17 PM

Samantha, Janet, and Connie, I can understand your concerns with fiction. I know I've been disappointed when I've read notes at the end of a historical fiction book to find something that I loved or was fascinated by to be made up. On the other hand, even nonfiction is colored by the author's bias, background, research and understanding. We have all read local histories or family histories that didn't tell the whole story or we discovered the facts were just plain wrong when we found the primary sources. Look at the biographies of a President written by different authors. Do we get a true picture of the President, or do we see him as the author did and as the people he interviewed did? We see what the author wants us to see.      

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