A Talk with Donis Casey

The bi-monthly meeting of the AZ Chapter of the Historical Novel Society featured a lovely presentation by author Donis Casey. Our chapter leader, Judith Starkston, calls her ‘the master of dialogue,’ and after the meeting this weekend, I’m not sure I can entirely disagree with that. Donis’ talk was terrific, and I learned so much!

Something to keep in mind, as writers of historical fiction, is that history equals facts. Historical fiction is not so black and white; it is about a person, or people. The facts need to be accurate, but the point of historical fiction is to create an entire life, not just a book filled with dry facts and dates. How do you do that? You get to know your characters just like you do with real people in your life – you talk to them! In novels, you do that through dialogue.

A good practice is to create a ‘bible.’ This is a document for your own use that details all of your characters, from your main characters down to the little goose girl in one scene. What color are their hair and eyes? How tall are they? What is their birthday? Do they have siblings? Children? How many? Are they married? etc. Donis said she likes to let each character write her a letter at some point in the creative process, in which they tell her all about themselves. This gives her a sense of their voice as well.

For everything you write, figure out two things first:

  1. Who is the story about?
  2. What is the point of view/who is telling the story?

With first person, there is a lot of immediacy and intimacy in the story (or scene, if you are using 1st person POV for multiple characters). There is only one way to view a scene at any given moment.

With third person, you have an anonymous storyteller, which can open up your options a lot more. You can tell about various events from multiple characters’ perspectives at the same time. The drawback is that it is not as intimate and you can lose something with it.

As an aside, not something Donis discussed, I think the point of view can create a character on its own as well. For example, in The Martian by Andy Weir, the majority of the narrative was in 1st person from Mark’s point of view. However, whenever Mars or the Hab started speaking (in 3rd person point of view), you knew Mark was well and truly fucked. It helped create atmosphere, and it created the Hab as a separate character that was every bit as vital to the story as Mark himself was. A similar example of this could be the Ring in The Lord of the Rings, where the One Ring was given its own separate and distinctive voice, its own presence on the page.

Back to Donis’ talk. The dialogue needs to be consistent with who the character is. Characters should NOT all speak alike. The queen should not have the same accent or speech mannerisms as a fishwife, a bishop shouldn’t speak as a farmer, etc.

When using dialogue, engage all the senses as well. Show as opposed to tell your readers about the scene. Invite them to observe. Authors need to be invisible. We should just create the world and let readers enter it, then draw their own conclusions. Too much explanation will kill dialogue. That said, some description of what characters are doing during dialogue can tell a great deal about what they are thinking. Use body language. If Jane is fidgeting while Jack is talking, she’s probably bored. You shouldn’t have to explain it.

Always read your dialogue aloud. It should sound natural, flow smoothly. If it doesn’t, go back and revise it until it does, and until it sounds like the characters who are speaking it. Again, it needs to sound like your king speaking, the farmer, the fishwife, etc.

Donis gave us a couple handouts for her talk. One of them had Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, which is kind of cheeky, but still are largely applicable. Five of the rules deal with dialogue. She focused for a while on numbers three, which is, ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,’ and four, which is, ‘Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.’ At first I was a little taken aback by number three, but then as we discussed it further, it made sense. ‘Said’ is invisible. No one notices words like said, explained, or repeated. They DO notice weird words like postulate, exhort, ejaculate. Those words are obtrusive and remind readers that they are reading, which isn’t what you want to happen. You want your readers not to realize they are reading, you want them to slip easily into your world and just absorb the words. An example she provided was from one of my favorite authors, Ellis Peters, and Peters did, indeed, only use ‘said’ for her dialogue:

‘No,’ she said, ‘they are not mine. But neither are they FitzHamon’s.’

‘Do you tell me,’ said Cadfael mildly, ‘that there has been no theft at all?”

‘Oh, yes,’ said Elfgiva, and her pallor burned into a fierce brightness, and her voice vibrated like a harp-string. ‘Yes,      there has been a theft, and a vile, cruel theft, too, but not here, not now.’

I looked through a few of my favorite books and they all followed this as well. Neil Gaiman, Juliet Marillier, Sharon Kay Penman, Anne McCaffrey, all of them use ‘said’ far more frequently than any other word during dialogue, and I’ve never noticed it until I went looking. Which is, of course, the point.

If a character has an accent, it should be described only one or two times, such as ‘her Southern accent flowed like honey’ or ‘Jimmy found Elsa’s German accent difficult to understand at first.’ Then move on and don’t mention it more, because readers will hear Elsa’s German accent in their heads when they read her from then on. Dialect, on the other hand, can be shown more frequently with things such as cadence or non-traditional spelling. For example, someone from Oklahoma might say, ‘I don’t get the pint of that’ rather than ‘I don’t get the point of that.’ Readers automatically understand what is meant.

Be careful about using slang and colloquialisms. Make sure to research the time period a slang term first came into use, if you are going to use it. The Oxford English Dictionary operates out of published works. It’s probably ok to assume that within four or five years of that, a term would have been well within colloquial use. If the OED says, for example, that the term ‘tubular’ came into pop culture slang on 13 Sept 1982, it was probably in colloquial use for at least a couple years prior to that.[1] Additionally, even uneducated folk used $50 words, incorrectly, because everyone read the Bible and Shakespeare, so their vocabulary was actually quite good compared to stupid modern American standards.[2] They may use the words incorrectly, but they try to use them.

So many novels and films are set in British-type places with British-type accents because it is very easy to denote social class. It’s easy to determine a person from a high social class when they speak with a British accent. The same can be done elsewhere, but it’s just easier with British accents. Similarly, one can define a foreigner by not using contractions in their dialogue, using incorrect word order, or throwing in the occasional foreign word when they speak. You can do this even if your characters are speaking invented languages like Elvish, or languages that we no longer know such as ancient Hittite.

Overall, I found the talk to be thoroughly enjoyable and very informative. So much of what Donis said seemed to be very commonsensical when she said it, but that I had never actually thought about until she said it out loud. It came at a great time for me, and is helpful for all authors, whether they write historical fiction or not. It applies to any kind of dialogue. I will certainly be applying it to my writing, regardless of genre.

Donis Casey writes historical fiction mysteries set in early 1900s Oklahoma, and they can be purchased at Amazon, her website, and your local bookstore. Her website is http://doniscasey.com/

[1] “tubular, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 9 November 2015.

[2] Donis didn’t actually make the comment about stupid modern American standards. That was all me. But still. Even the uneducated people were reading Shakespeare. Hardly even college grads today read Shakespeare. Come on, now. Let’s step up our game a bit. Like Shakespeare is hard.


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