The Challenge of Dialogue

One aspect of my written work that I think has changed since I published ‘The War Wolf’ in 2013 is the dialogue. It is not a dramatic change and I am not talking about just grammar or spelling or punctuation, it is more a question of style, I first noticed this when I was writing ‘Eugenica’ in 2016. That, of course, is a very different kind of book, heavily influenced by film noir, a genre I particularly enjoy.

With ‘The War Wolf’ I was keen for the characters to appear historical by having them speak in a way that is subtly different to what we do today, I used ‘mayhap’ for ‘perhaps’ for example and framed sentences slightly differently. I think that in ‘The War Wolf’ my intent forced the style of the dialogue but I was pleasantly surprised when a reviewer stated that the book had a poetic style that gave it a unique character of its own. I think that this poetic style was influenced by use of the Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Wanderer’ just before the Battle of Fulford Gate. At the time it had seemed like a good device to help me set out the feelings of various main characters but now I feel that it had a far greater impact than I had realised.

My approach with ‘Eugenica’ was very different. I took the trouble to research slang and


My femme fatale, Helene Monroe from Eugenica

common phrases from the 1930′, people did not get you back for an unkindness then, they paid you out, but that was par for the course as far as I was concerned. In this book I had a femme fatale, well of a sorts, in Helene Monroe. She is a confident, beautiful, capable woman in a very make dominated world; politics. I wanted her character to be reflected in the way she speaks to people and, like most real people, it changes with the status of the other person. When dealing with people who work for her she is authoritarian, with her superiors she is mindful, and with everyone else she likes a little verbal sparring. I very much enjoyed writing her dialogue but I quickly found that I had to discipline myself and stop giving the reader to many ‘she said’ and ‘he said’ descriptions at the end of each sentence.

Playwrights do not have this problem of course; they leave it to the interpretation of the actors and directors. When reading plays the dialogue always moves so much more quickly as a result. I tried this with my work. I attempted to set the scene so that the reader would know who was present and in which order they were talking. This was crucial when there were more than two characters. My intention was to let the reader infer as much from the dialogue as they could without me providing too many clues in the way of ‘she said scathingly’ for example. I found this approach very engaging and quite often the conversations would go off in an unexpected direction as ideas occurred and I sought to explore them. Not all of these verbal tangents survived the editing process but they were fun at the time.

Returning to 1066 with ‘The Blade’s Fell Blow’ I approached the dialogue with more confidence. Although I still wanted to couch it in an authentic sounding way I tried to be minimal in my description either of the character’s intonation, expression, and anything else that, in my opinion, just slowed the reading down unnecessarily. I am also using this approach in my next project, ‘The Queen of the Mountain’. In a way it feels like I am exploring the power of dialogue to give energy to the storytelling, I suppose that is what actors enjoy from a well written part. In fact I am pretty sure that it is. It is also enjoyable for me as a writer, as well as something of a challenge, which is good. I do not want to be the kind of writer who discovers a formula and sticks to it, that would be so boring! I know that in some situations this makes perfect commercial success but I do not think that it would inspire me at all. More than that, I am not really genre writer at all, that is, I have written three books that are historical fiction but I do not consider myself as a historical fiction writer only. ‘Eugenica’ is an alternate history dystopian novel and, therefore, very different, and ‘The Queen of the Mountain’ is definitely a fantasy novel. I have more projects planned that include science fiction, crime, and general fiction. If I am to achieve these projects then it seems to me that challenging myself as a writer, with dialogue for example, is the best way to go.

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