Writing Authentically

Because the stories of Chet Ludington’s ancestors stretch from the time of Attila the Hun to the flapper era of the Roaring Twenties and beyond, I needed to make stylistic choices regarding the dialog: should I go for “authenticity” or ease of reading? On one hand, altering words and speech patterns too drastically could make for a very difficult read. On the other hand, putting modern words into the mouths of the characters fails to capture their various cultures and places in history.

Consider this section, from the perspective of one of Attila’s compatriots: ‘“Let the weak demand their comforts,” Shaka had heard Attila rant, sneering out the words to those he wished to toughen. Attila had no need of weak warriors, fit for nothing but women’s work. “Hunger, thirst, the sun’s blast, and winter’s freeze: these are not our enemies,” he shouted, rallying his men to victory, his thin whiskers quivering. “Rome will fall without our help; her corruption, love of comfort, and sissified civility remain her most dogged enemies.”’

Although the words themselves are not far from ones used by modern speakers, the content of the Attila’s speech and the way he expresses himself, e.g. “sissified civility” and “dogged enemies” seem more appropriate for a battle leader.

When writing dialog for two young Southern tradesmen who came to New York in search of work shortly before the Civil War, I wanted to avoid stereotypical manners of expression, e.g. “I hopes y’all kin b’liv me whens I sez no white man goan git the best ‘o me, nosuh.” It’s difficult to write such dialog accurately; it’s also painful to read. Instead, I settled on a style that stands out as different than modern speech, yet is accessible for readers:

This time the taller one spoke. “Uh, we learned our business in a large furniture shop in the South. We got a deal for you if you’re interested.”

This was a new approach. I stood there stroking my jaw, trying to figure my next move until I remembered that my hand was smirched with wood stain. I stilled my hand and nodded.

“If you can give us food and a place to sleep,” Cuff continued, “we’ll work for you for a week. If you like what you see, we can settle on a wage. If not, we’ll be on our way, nothing lost to you but a few meals.”

“I like your ambition, and I’m sure my wife wouldn’t mind cooking for a couple of boys with good appetites. Not sure she’d feel so chirk about the idea of two strangers in her home, though.”

“Oh, we sure don’t want to be any trouble to your missus, Mr. Ludington. If you’ll just give us a blanket or two to throw over a pile of saw dust, we can sleep here in the woodshop.”

Through period words like “smirched: and “chirk” and slightly unsophisticated (as far as the modern ear go) expressions like “Oh, we sure don’t want to be any trouble to your missus,” I hope I’ve struck a happy balance.

Interestingly, the closer I came to modern times, the more attention I needed to pay to specific expressions and terms of the era. I absolutely cannot, after all, write “Hun-speak” because Huns spoke a different. I could, however, authentically write about their horses and battle tactics because of eye-witness accounts. These are some of the specific aspects of the story I depend on to set the tone for the piece.

In two of the stories, I made a stylistic choice to stray somewhat from the approach I’ve described above. “Wild Strawberries” tells about two mountain men and their exploits. As part of my research for the story, I read a first-person, serialized account of an actual mountain man and found copious examples of “mountain-man speak.” These were both informative and entertaining—and also too tempting to resist. Here’s one of the sections inspired by those tales:

“Wagh! Look at that old beaver,” someone said, pointing at Gil as he stumbled toward the nearest man. “Looks like he been in a tangle and barely made it out alive.”

“Wal, ah’ll be et for a tater,” another answered. “Ya need some help there, chile? Looks like you could at least do with some clothes to kivver that sorry hide of yourn.”

The other exception that proved to be irresistible was an adapted portion of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook (courtesy of the British Library) that main character Denise finds when studying materials given to her by aged vet Chet Ludington: “Take eighteen eggs, and beat them very well, beat some flour amongst them to make them pretty thick; then have a pottle of cream and boil it before putting in eggs, flour, and half a pund of butter, some cinamon, salt, boild currans, and sugar. Boil it thick. Being cold fill them and bake it.” This, by the way, was their version of cheesecake.

I hope that, through the various tactics I’ve used to communicate the times and personalities behind the historic periods in my book, readers will be able to immerse themselves in the stories of these characters.

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