Friday, 30 May 2014

Why write dialogue?

There are few hard and fast rules in fiction writing, but one is that popular or commercial fiction should have a substantial amount of dialogue. This was not always the case; some nineteenth century authors, such as Sir Walter Scott or Anthony Trollope, wrote page after page, even entire chapters, with no dialogue at all. It's unlikely this approach would win them many readers today.

Exactly how much dialogue is up to the author. My characters talk to each other a lot. Other writers possibly use less. But there must be some.

Dialogue serves several purposes.

It advances the plot. Character A tells Character B something, and at the same time informs the reader:

'My dear Mr Bennet, have you heard that Netherfield Hall is let at last?'

By the end of that scene, which is less than two pages long, a major part of the plot (the possibility that one of the Bennet girls will marry Bingley) has been set up and the reader has learned a fair amount about Bingley and the Bennets, entirely through the conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet.

Another way dialogue can be used to inform the reader is in crime and mystery novels, when the detective and his or her sidekick recap the crime and review the suspects and their possible  motives.

All this could be done in narrative, of course, but that would preclude one of the other prime functions of dialogue: to reveal character.  By the end of the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice, the reader knows that Mrs Bennet is talkative, that she likes to gossip, and she is, or likes to think she is, subject to 'nerves'.

Later, in another important plot development, Elizabeth forms her first impressions of Mr Darcy from overhearing his conversation with Bingley:

'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.'

Later, Elizabeth meets the housekeeper at Pemberley:

'He is the best landlord, and the best master,' said she, 'that ever lived; not like the wild young men nowadays, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but will give him a good name. Some people call him proud; but I am sure I never saw anything of it. To my fancy, it is only because he does not rattle away like other young men.'

Again, this moves the plot along, as it causes Elizabeth to revise her opinion of Darcy.

Dialogue also helps to generate tension:

'Come, Watson, come!' he cried. 'The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!'

is much more dramatic than 'Holmes told me to get dressed quickly and come with him'.

The denouement of a crime novel, when the detective gathers all the suspects in the library in order to reveal the criminal, is another occasion when dialogue is used to create tension.

Dialogue also helps to maintain pace. The opening scene between Mr and Mrs Bennet moves along quickly because it's all dialogue; there is narration only before and after it.

In romance, dialogue can also be used to show that the two people involved are getting to know one another, and that they are well suited. (It is a pet peeve of mine that romance novels too often end with the couple presumed to be heading for a happy ever after when they have barely had a conversation throughout the book!)

And dialogue also serves to entice readers. A prospective reader  is not confronted with a wall of text when dipping into a book. He or she can quickly establish, by reading a passage of dialogue, who the characters are and whether he or she wants to read about them.

That is what dialogue is for. How to write it is a subject for another post!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Justice of the Peace

Today there are local elections in many places in England. This is relatively recent. County Councils were created by the Local Government Act of 1888. Town councils elected by ratepayers were set up under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835.

Before 1888 most county administration was carried on by Justices of the Peace.  The office evolved through the Middle Ages, but was formally established by legislation in 1361. Justices were appointed by the sovereign. Their role was not salaried, but they were entitled to claim some expenses.

Justices of the Peace were not drawn from the great noble families. This was largely because in the late medieval and Tudor periods royal policy was to diminish, wherever possible, the power and influence of the nobility. Additionally, a great nobleman would be likely to move between the court and his estates in various parts of the country, while a Justice of the Peace needed to be settled in one area in order to be effective.

By the sixteenth century J.P.s were appointed from among the middling sorts of county gentry. They were not necessarily very wealthy but needed to have sufficient education and time to spare from their own affairs to carry out the role effectively. Not all men who were appointed were active as J.P.s, but a conscientious gentleman might spend several days a month on Justice's affairs, more at certain times of the year and in certain circumstances.

As local government developed in the Tudor period Justices of the Peace acquired more and more responsibilities. A county might have a hundred or more Justices. Each would have county wide powers and responsibilities but would also pay special attention to affairs in his own home area.

In addition to dealing with criminal matters, as and when required by legislation they oversaw the administration of the Poor Law, the repair and maintenance of highways, and apprenticeships; regulated markets and fairs and weights and measures; fixed prices, especially of corn and bread; licensed theatres, alehouses, dissenters' meeting houses, gamekeepers and corndealers; maintained the county gaol; maintained bridges in the county; appointed, or confirmed the appointment of, various local officials, and dealt with matters relating to bastardy, among other things.

The 1580s were a critical decade for national security. William Lambarde, a J.P. in Kent, assisted the Lord Lieutenant with the muster. He also mediated in disputes about the beacon watch.  In the difficult decade of the 1590s, when there were near famine conditions due to bad harvests, Lambarde and others toured the county ensuring that farmers were taking their corn to market and selling it at fair prices, rather than holding it back hoping that prices would rise further.

Four times a year Justices of the Peace attended the Quarter Sessions, usually held in the county town. The Sessions dealt with criminal cases, as well as civil and administrative matters. Not all Justices attended every sessions, but for those who did, it could be a social occasion and an opportunity for gentlemen to meet to discuss politics and other matters not directly related to Justice's business.

Local government could not have operated and law and order could not have been maintained without the Justices of the Peace. Many gentlemen held other offices, in addition to that of Justice. They gave their time to this work as well as managing their own estates and family affairs. They knew their counties intimately and in their own home areas would have known everyone at all levels of society. They and their work deserve to be remembered.

Friday, 16 May 2014

For the apparel oft proclaims the man II

A historical novelist might often have a reason to describe women's clothing. A girl might be dressing for her first ball, or a woman might be buying clothes before travelling to a new job or to visit some long lost relatives. Such scenes help to establish the setting and reveal something about the character.

A writer is less likely to go into detail about men's dress, but it's still necessary to know whether a male character would have been wearing hose or breeches or trousers.

Men's hairstyles in the past also varied as much as women's.  When were wigs worn? Samuel Pepys started wearing one in the autumn of 1663, having his own hair cut off. The King and the Duke of York started wearing them about the same time, so Pepys seems to have been at the forefront of fashion. Not everybody wore a wig, however; Pepys' contemporary and fellow diarist  John Evelyn appears to have worn his own hair.

Styles changed, but wigs were worn throughout the eighteenth century. They were often stolen or knocked off in fights. Hair powder was also used, by men and women. William Pitt the Younger's Hair Powder Duty, introduced in 1795, is said to have ended the practice of wearing powdered hair or wigs. It survives now only in the legal profession.

Then there is facial hair. Beards were in fashion in the Elizabethan period and into the early seventeenth century. Facial hair did not become popular again until the Victorian era. Then it seemed that anything went; beards, moustaches, side whiskers, all luxuriantly grown. Hair products for men were advertised along with those for women.

When writing historical fiction, especially romance, one has to consider what a modern reader might find attractive in a hero.  A  neatly trimmed beard would be acceptable to most people.

A man's own hair, short or long, is fine. A man's own hair, powdered and tied back for a formal occasion, might also be attractive. The very elaborate wigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the facial hair of the Victorian era are less likely to appeal to a modern reader.

In the 1870s, when my current work in progress is set, one of the male characters, whom my heroine finds attractive, almost certainly would have been wearing side whiskers. When introducing him, I avoided the issue by not mentioning whether he was clean shaven. As long as readers don't imagine him with a beard, which he definitely would not have been wearing, they are free to think of him as they please.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

For the apparel oft proclaims the man - or woman!

In writing historical fiction one has to be aware of the changing styles of women's dress over the centuries, and what fabrics and colours might be available at different times. When did the styles associated with the Regency appear? When were crinolines first worn? When exactly in the 1920s did short skirts appear, and when did hemlines drop again?

And there is fashion, and there is what people actually wore. And for a novelist, a character's dress can be used to reveal information about him or her to the reader.

How quickly would a young woman become aware of the latest styles? If she was a servant in London or a factory girl in Manchester, probably quite quickly. If she lived on a smallholding in a remote part of Cumberland, it might take her a while longer.

It's not necessary, in fact it's probably unrealistic, for a character to be wearing whatever is in the latest fashion plates. Only the most wealthy and fashion conscious would be always up to date with the latest styles. Some might have the money but be uninterested in fashion. Most girls and women, if they could afford it, might buy one or two new items every year, or every winter and summer, and have a mix of new and older clothing. Some might rarely, or never, have new clothes.

Is it practical or appropriate for the character to be wearing the latest fashion? I have a character who is a young woman in the late 1870s. The latest fashion in ladies' day and evening dress then was narrow skirts with long trains and lots of elaborate trimming.

My character would not have worn a dress like that, for several reasons. I had to search to find out what she would have worn. Artists and photographers who depicted street life and domestic scenes are the best resource for this type of research.