November 9 – 15: “How to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events.”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re making it real! Making dialogue, settings and historical events real, that is. We’re joined by a full house ITW members, including Paul McGoran, Jennifer Kincheloe, John Hegenberger, Erica Wright, Patrick Kendrick, J. D. Horn, Sherry Knowlton, Robert McClure, Anthony Schumacher, William Lemanski, Toby Tate, D. J. Niko, Earl Javorsky, Judy Penz Sheluk and Elizabeth Edmondson.




SPYFALLcover (2)Born and raised in the heart of the heartland, Columbus, Ohio, John Hegenberger is the author of several upcoming series: Stan Wade LAPI in 1959, Eliot Cross Columbus-based PI in 1988, Tripleye, the first PI agency on Mars, and Ace Hart, western gambler in Arizona in 1873. He’s the father of three, tennis enthusiast, collector of silent films and OTR, hiker, Francophile, B.A. Comparative Lit., Pop culture author, ex-Navy, ex-marketing exec at Exxon, AT&T, and IBM, happily married for 45 years and counting.


Layout 1Paul McGoran lives in Newport, Rhode Island. In his lives before fiction, he was a Russian language interpreter for the Navy, a marketing executive, a management consultant, and a day trader. The most satisfactory aspect of fiction writing for Paul is disappearing into the heads of his characters. Writers like him suffer from a kind of multiple personality disorder–minus some of the negative clinical implications. Made For Murder, a noir thriller, is his first novel.


hanged manJudy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published July 2015. Her short crime fiction is included in The Whole She-Bang 2, World Enough and Crime, and Flash and Bang. In addition to the ITW, Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.



Earl Javorsky’s first novel, Down Solo, was released in December, 2014, followed by Trust Me this past July. After a long stint trying to make it as a musician in LA and clawing his way up to mid-level management in the chemical entertainment industry (just about killed him), he went back to his first love—writing. He had the good fortune to run into Lou Aronica, his editor at The Story Plant.



BritishLion_HCTony Schumacher has written for the Guardian and the Huffington Post, and he is a regular contributor to BBC Radio and London’s LBC Radio. He has been a policeman, stand-up comedian, bouncer, jeweler, taxi driver, perfume salesman, actor, and garbage collector, among other occupations. He currently lives outside of Liverpool, The Darkest Hour and The British Lion, both WW2 thrillers, are published by Harper Collins.


deadlyRobert McClure read pulp fiction as a kid when he should have been studying, but ultimately cracked down enough to obtain a bachelor’s in criminology from Murray State University and a law degree from the University of Louisville. He is now an attorney and crime fiction writer who lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky. His story “My Son” appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories, and he has had other works published in MudRock: Stories & Tales, Hardboiled, Thug Lit, and Plots with Guns.


The Savants Cover_Final_Online (2)Patrick Kendrick is an award winning author of several thrillers, including: Papa’s Problem, a Florida Book Award and Hollywood Film Festival Award winner. Extended Family, which earned a starred review from Booklist. His newest crime thriller, Acoustic Shadows, was published by HarperCollins in June and is a Royal Palm Literary Award Finalist. The Savants, a sci-fi, political thriller is his first YA novel, and is published by Suspense Publishing. A former firefighter and freelance journalist, he lives in Florida close to the sea.


SHIVAREE COVER FOR ITWJ.D. Horn was raised in rural Tennessee and has carried a bit of its red clay with him while traveling the world, from Hollywood to Paris to Tokyo. He studied comparative literature as an undergrad, focusing on French and Russian in particular. He also holds an MBA in international business and worked as a financial analyst before becoming a novelist. Along with his spouse, Rich, and his furry co-authors, Duke and Sugar, he divides his time between Black Butte Ranch, Oregon, and San Francisco, California.


Secret Life of Anna BlancJennifer Kincheloe is a research scientist turned writer of historical fiction. She earned a Masters degree in Public Health from Loma Linda University and a PhD in Health Services from UCLA. She adores kickboxing, yoga, and developing complex statistical models. She was on the faculty at UCLA, where she spent 11 years conducting research to inform health policy. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and two children. Follow Jennifer on Facebook.


dead of summerSherry Knowlton is the author of the successful Alexa Williams suspense novels, DEAD of AUTUMN and DEAD of SUMMER. Sherry was that kid who would sneak a flashlight to bed at night so she could read beneath the covers. All the local librarians knew her by name. Now retired from executive positions in the health insurance industry, Sherry runs her own consulting business.  When not traveling around the globe, Sherry lives with her husband in the mountains of South Central Pennsylvania, where her novels are set.


GraniteCoverErica Wright‘s debut crime novel The Red Chameleon (Pegasus Books) was one of O, The Oprah Magazine‘s Best Books of Summer 2014. A sequel, The Granite Moth (Pegasus Books), will be released on November 16th. She is also the author of the poetry collection Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) as well as the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine.


cainAn Air Force brat who never lived in one place more than five years, Toby Tate joined the Navy soon after high school and ended up on the east coast of the U.S. He has since worked as a cab driver, a pizza delivery man, a phone solicitor, a shipyard technician, a government contractor, a retail music salesman, a bookseller, a cell phone salesman and a recording studio engineer. After earning his English degree, he became a full-time graphic designer and newspaper reporter for five years and published hundreds of stories with the Associated Press and his local paper. He has since been published in The Pedestal Magazine, Voluted Tales magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Scary Monsters Magazine, and websites like Owing to the inspiration of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King, Toby became an author of what he likes to call “high-octane sci-fi, fantasy and horror” and has published several books. Toby is also a songwriter and musician and lives with his family near the Great Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina.


TheOracleDaphne Nikolopoulos in an award-winning journalist, author, editor, and lecturer. Under the pen name D.J. Niko, she has written two novels in an archaeological thriller series titled The Sarah Weston Chronicles. Her debut novel, The Tenth Saint (Medallion Press, 2012), won the Gold Medal (popular fiction) in the prestigious, juried Florida Book Awards. Her follow-up release, The Riddle of Solomon, continues the story of British archaeologist Sarah Weston as she seeks the relics—and mystical secrets—left behind by the biblical King Solomon in remote Israel. Daphne’s coming releases include The Oracle, book 3 in The Sarah Weston Chronicles (November 2015) and The Judgment, which is set in Israel and Egypt in the tenth century BCE (May 2016). Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Daphne now resides in West Palm Beach with her husband and twin son and daughter.


A Question of Inheritance coverElizabeth Edmondson writes what she likes to call Vintage Mysteries, since they’re set in the nineteen-thirties, forties and fifties. They’re stories of love and marriage, families and friendship, in which the loyalties, feuds, secrets and betrayals of the past cast long shadows into the present. She’s fascinated by characters who are quirky, mysterious, funny, unexpected and interesting and wants readers to share, as she does, in their joys and sorrows. With dramatic and glamorous settings from icy lakes to Italian villas, from wintry Budapest to fashionable France, from Cornwall to the Lake District, the landscapes are as powerful as the stories are complex. The tense realities of life mingle with supernatural elements : ghosts, prophetic dreams and voices from the past, but fun and humour also dance in and out of the light and darkness of the stories. Elizabeth’s aim is to enthrall, delight and amuse readers as they are transported to a different era.


murder lemanskiWilliam Lemanski is an author of three books: a memoir of his adventurous travels in yacht sailing, war, big game hunting and fishing, a biography of Kermit Roosevelt and his new mystery novel. He has been a former freelance journalist for the Straus Newspaper Company, been associate editor for a medical journal and published in numerous technical and sporting magazines. Prior to his writing activities, he completed an engineering career in the nuclear power industry. He is a Vietnam War veteran.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. What does it take for a book to be a thriller? Stories, global threats, slightly over the top characters, or all of the above?

    A ‘thriller’, by its definition is to feel sudden, intense sensation. Certainly global threats, intimidating characters and many other emotionally stimulating topics can be considered as thrill inducing. However, for the writer, setting, character development and credibility are all important. However, in my opinion, to create sudden, intense sensation, the story line must also present surprise of the unexpected; the more unexpected, the greater the surprise.
    In the current style of the American television and film industry, this is commonly expressed in car chases and violent gunfights, all overplayed and too routine for my taste. I believe a much more elegant and ‘thrilling’ experience is in the British form of mystery, say for example in the manner of an Alfred Hitchcock story – many twists, turns and dead ends with unexpected surprises. A cerebral approach that makes the reader ponder the possibilities only to be found either wrong and/or shocked.

  2. Making it real, how to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events.

    The key to writing accurate dialog, regardless of the venue, or genre, or the specific event (with the exception of perhaps fantasy) is twofold: have a somewhat good understanding of just what you are writing about and structure the dialog in a realistic, believable manner. For example, write in the vernacular of the locality or period and attempt to express the mindset of those in the discussion. However, this should not be taken too far. If attempting to place the setting say, in fifteenth century Britain, a dialog in Old English would be impractical to write and unreasonable (if not impossible) for the reader to comprehend. But the use of twenty-first century idiom would also be inappropriate. Reasonable judgement should prevail. In my current mystery, Murder in Tuxedo Park, which is set in the latter nineteenth century with an elitist cast of characters, I attempt to construct conversation in a somewhat formal, and by today’s standards, stuffy, even pedantic vernacular.
    Creating a setting and recreating a historical event naturally should rely upon factual information. The difficulty is to what degree of detail one wishes to express. From my perspective, if the work is a biography, the degree of detail should be only that which is necessary to flesh-out and portray the protagonist’s story while not overpowering and leaving the main character lost in the weeds. Any historical event should be as close to fact as is possible. Once a reader begins to discover inaccuracies, the entire storyline will begin to lose credibility.

  3. Making it real, how to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events. 

    The secret is to immerse yourself in the world in which your story takes place. I don’t call it research; it’s more soaking up atmosphere, language and the reality of that place and time.

    My mysteries are set in the twentieth century, with the present series set in the early 1950s, in an imaginary English country town.
    This historical period is highly accessible, through books from that time and from film and even television (just — TV didn’t really get going in England until later in the fifties). Anything: detective or literary fiction, diaries, newspapers, comedy shows, documentaries — they all give you clues for dialogue, the way that world looked and what was important to people then.

    You don’t have the visuals for earlier periods of history, but you will have contemporary writing to draw on—not only accounts of a particular event, but the stuff of daily life.

  4. The accuracy of the setting is key to many of my books. In fact, the setting often times is an active participant and character in the plot. Additionally, the historical details create a living, breathing world for the reader to explore. The dialogue reflects the historical setting, so certain turns of phrase are extremely relevant in historical stories. In fact, they are required in order to create the verisimilitude.

  5. Making it real, how to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events:

    My job as a thriller writer is to create worlds where readers can easily suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in my story. My purpose in trying to ensure accuracy in the real world elements I introduce is to do my best to make sure there is nothing that will jar the reader out of our shared dream.

    Absolute accuracy in dialogue (accent, vocabulary, pace) may not be the best thing to pursue. I think it’s better to provide a taste of how a character might sound, but to avoid any lengthy attempts at phonetic transcription or a long string of (unnecessary) technical jargon that might cause your reader to pull up short.

    When it comes to writing place, if your resources and abilities allow, there is nothing like boots on the ground research. The smells and sounds of a place are sometimes even more important in helping evoke its essence in the reader’s mind than any visual impression. If you can’t swing a trip, of course Google Earth is an invaluable resource to view detailed images of many cities, but histories and travel memoirs are also great. Start asking friends on Facebook and Twitter if any of them have ever visited or know anyone who lives in the region of interest. I’ve found it fairly easy to get introductions to people who actually live in any given area, and often they’re more than happy to share their impressions of their homes with you. Some are even kind enough to offer to do a little detailed research or introduce you to local experts. Reach out. Ask.

    Unless your narrative revolves around specific historical events, ask yourself your purpose for introducing these events into your book. If you’re simply trying to provide a temporal anchor to your story, ask yourself how much attention you paid to today’s news headlines. Your character’s reaction to and investment in historical events will probably mirror the depth of your own to today’s happenings. Great events might burn themselves into your psyche, but many others will slip from your mind as soon as you see someone brought donuts. Make sure you’re granting the appropriate weight to any event you’re including, and let the degree of detail you include depend on that weighting.

  6. Dialogue
    The best way to see if the dialogue you’ve written works is to read it aloud (or have your computer read it to you, if you can tolerate the CGI voice). You’ll quickly hear where it stumbles. The reason for the stumbles can be any number of things but here are 3 reasons
    1) trying to get clever with “said” by replacing it with another verb. One of my pet peeves is reading something like: “Oh, don’t do that,” Sally chortled or chuckled. Try to chortle or chuckle a sentence, let me know how you make out. BETTER to write: “Oh, don’t do that.” Sally chortled or chuckled at the thought.
    2) using said A LOT. Yes, we need dialogue tags, but they do slow the pace of the reading. Try to use as few as possible. If you need to, use said (see point 1).
    3) being far too clever with your vocabulary. People seldom say things like, “I surreptitiously slipped into the pantry at midnight to make a pastrami on rye.” They might say, “I snuck into the pantry to make a sandwich.” If you want to use surreptitiously, by all means go for it, just not in dialogue (unless your character would speak in an affected manner most of the time).

    To me, this is subjective. Some people love a lot of flowery prose and metaphor. I’m more in the less is more camp. Either way, setting/place should be treated as if it’s another character. I’ve never been to Minnesota, but I have seen it through John Sandford’s Prey series. I’ve never been to Ireland, but Tana French has taken me there. You get the idea…

    I don’t write historical, though there is real history incorporated into my novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose. Best suggestion: do your research. Check a variety of sources (not just wikipedia). You may not be an expert on mirrored hall stands, circa 1890, but you can bet your bottom dollar someone is.

    1. You make excellent points, Judy, with your observations on dialogue, that bring to mind Rules 3 and 4 of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (my writing bible). I hope you don’t mind if I quote Elmore:

      3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

      The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

      4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

      . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

      Great stuff, eh?


    If plot and character form the heart and soul of fiction, then dialogue, setting and historical accuracy comprise the flesh and bones. Rather than presume to make definitive statements on any of these, I’ll limit myself to enumerating a few precepts that work for me in each area.

    Realism in Dialogue:
    1. Say it aloud. Does it sound at all forced or awkward? Then it has to change.
    2. Brevity is best. But when a character must expound, revise it to a minimum.
    3. Understand the class and ethnicity of your characters. Differentiating speech patterns can be difficult, but will help the reader keep your characters straight. Also, see number 1.
    4. Go easy on accents. An over-stressed phonetic accuracy stereotypes and diminishes a character. Even for comic relief, this sort of thing can be hard on the eyes.
    5. To dialog or not to dialog? Err on the side of more dialog, but know its limitations. You want it to display character and advance the story, but physical actions are better portrayed in exposition. Show them doing it, don’t have them tell us about it.

    1. Can you see it? Whether it’s a hotel lobby, a street in New York, or a neighborhood in a city of your imagination, you have to see it in detail if it forms a significant part of your story.
    2. Real places demand in-depth knowledge or solid research. The more well-known the setting (think iconic sights and cities), the more your readers will demand accuracy.
    3. Scenery and props are setting,too. Significant detail will flesh out the setting. ‘He sat down’ tells you something. ‘He sat in one of the red plush armchairs against the foyer wall’ adds elements of setting and mood. Likewise ‘She drove to the church at 5 pm’ versus ‘She drove to church at dusk under a flaming sky.’

    Historical Events:
    1. Research, research, research. Internet research is fine, but get yourself to a good library for original documents where possible. Look to experts for advice.
    2. Know the details of your setting. Get acquainted with clothing, household items, professional gear and architecture of the target period.
    3. Use novels of the period. Read copiously in period novels for a grounding in the speech of the time and for a sense of the zeitgeist.
    4. Vocabulary differences. Don’t assume your personal word stock is up to the challenge. To cite a well-known example, a psychiatrist in the nineteenth century was an alienist.
    5. Employ slang and archaisms of the time—but only very sparsely and judiciously.
    6. Wear your research lightly—There will be a temptation to use everything you learn. Don’t do it.

  8. I approach historical dialogue armed with three tools:

    1) The Historical Dictionary of American Slang by J.E. Lighter.

    This heavyweight reference has thirteen pages dedicated solely to the word f*4@!. It records the first known appearance of slang terms in writing, including date, source, and place. One major drawback—the author got tired and quit at the letter O.

    2) Books and other materials written during (not about) the era.

    Sermons, textbooks, newspaper articles, the Sears Catalogue. I harvest period language by reading novels and studying the dialogue. Context is hugely important.

    3) An ever-growing Word document for recording slang terms as I encounter them. Then, when revising a novel, I go through the list and use them to spice up dialogue.

  9. One of the keys to making it real is research. My suspense novels are contemporary stories with historical subplots. So, I have to make sure that things are accurate not only in the modern-day setting, but also in another period in time. My research covers the gamut. I use the internet as well as other written and video sources of information. I’ve consulted experts on topics as diverse as police procedure, the meaning of Thai names, and scary farm equipment – all with the intent of creating a credible framework for the characters and plot.

    Personal experience, especially with settings, can really help to make it real. My books are based in Southcentral Pennsylvania; an area I’ve lived all my life. So, I bring that perspective as I work to develop a sense of place in my books. In my most recent novel, my protagonist goes to Kenya and Tanzania. Thailand and India also play a big role in the story. I’ve spent time in all of those countries and believe that experience helped enhance my description of the settings. I understand that authors can’t always visit the scenes of their novels. In that case, do research, watch movies or videos and talk to people who’ve been there. That can help you get the rhythms, the sounds, the smells and the feeling of a place.

    It’s important for authors to get it right when they’re writing dialogue. I don’t mean writing in dialect or using a lot of technical jargon. But, children don’t usually speak like mini-adults. Phrases and speech patterns vary across the country and the world. And, slang evolves. At the most basic level, dialogue needs to sound real. Reading some of your written dialogue aloud can help.

    Glaring anomalies in dialogue, history or setting can undermine the credibility of your novel. If they don’t ring true – you can lose your reader.

    1. Good points – I live in Pennsylvania but as a long-ago immigrant from the midwest still have not yet mastered some of the local idioms, especially the use of “onto it” and “any more.”

      1. Geoff – As a live-long resident of Pennsylvania, I’m still learning that some of the things I say are considered idioms. One of my earliest discoveries was that most of the country doesn’t “rid up” their house (meaning clean). It’s also been interesting to discover that foods I’ve eaten from childhood are regional, like Chicken Corn Soup and Lebanon Bologna. It’s hard to pick up on some of those finer points when you’re writing about an area that you’re not as familiar with.

  10. The remarks above are spot on.

    My thrillers are set in remote geographic locations and rooted in mysteries from ancient times. Because most folks are not terribly familiar with either, my goal is to elucidate these elements and, hopefully, create a richer reading experience.

    For me, setting is hugely important. Because my background is in travel journalism, I am a real stickler for nailing descriptions of places. Obviously, the best way to do this is to see a place firsthand and experience it in as authentic a manner as possible. For example, when I was researching for my most recent release, The Oracle, I spent time in Delphi and the Parnassus mountains in central Greece. I walked into caves that could double as secret chambers, examined paths that could serve as escape routes for a hunted heroine, and studied temple ruins to figure out how ancient ceremonies could be recreated.

    For my debut thriller, The Tenth Saint, which is set in Ethiopia, I took two trips to the country, including one by helicopter so I could visit some of the more inaccessible locales in which my scenes unfolded. And for all books, I reached into the memory bank for experiences I had personally had in my more adventurous (read: pre-kids) past: sandstorms, skydives, precarious treks, time spent with tribal people.

    That’s not always convenient or feasible—heck, sometimes it’s not even safe—but it works for me. When I can’t—or won’t—experience something firsthand (who wants to jump out of a taxiing airplane onto the Tarmac?), I ask experts to walk me through it.

    Authenticity is key in creating believable scenes, especially in thrillers, where events and characters can sometimes seem exaggerated.

    1. D.J. – I see that you’re in my camp about the importance of on-site research. But, you brought up an important point. Sometimes, traveling to the setting of your story just isn’t safe. You can just read the newspaper or watch the news to pinpoint some of those places. Budget is a factor, of course. And, sometimes, an author may not be able to physically access more remote locations. For example, I know that I’ll never be writing that novel about climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro based on my own experience — even if I could make the climb, my body wacks out at high altitudes.

      1. Exactly right, Sherry. The point is to make it authentic–not to put ourselves in as much danger as our characters! In some cases, YouTube videos are a great place to start. A detailed and well produced video can spark ideas about certain cultures and places, which can then lead to further research.

        1. Great idea. I’ve also relied on documentaries about certain topics. For the most part, I’ve shied away from watching movies on similar topics and themes — I don’t want to be influenced by their plot. One exception – for my second book, Dead of Summer, I did watch the Woodstock movie — just to get back into the vibe

  11. Making it real, how to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events.

    It seems I am late to the conversation and everyone has pointed out some very good and accurate information: keeping it brief for dialogue, settings should be described enough to make you feel as though you are there, or the writer has been there, or the character(s) is/are there, and if you’re doing historical, you have to do extensive research.

    I’ve done one historical novel going into it with the belief I knew the subject well enough to write about it. But, you can never know enough and if you can find minute details-it adds to the realism, which adds to the readers suspension of disbelief and draws them in. For instance, when I wrote of the era of 1939 Key West, of course, I had to know street names and other obvious facts of Key West. But, once I got into looking deeper, I found the names of the city commissioners, the normal diet and habits of working class people living there, the cost of fish at the local market, and so on. This can absorb you as a writer but I believe if readers are drawn to historical books, they want that authenticity.Bottom line, you can’t do too much research.

    Setting sort of goes along with that type of intense research. It certainly is a plus if you’ve been to the area you’re writing about, but as others have pointed out, it is not always possible. So, research comes in again. I tend to set my books in Florida and the places I’ve ventured to out of the Sunshine state are are places I’ve been to. I’ve considered doing some stories in places I haven’t been to, but I find when I write them, it can seem hollow to me, so I either plan to visit or inquire from people I know who have been there.But, just like historical, you’re looking for details. Are there breezes? What’s the usual temperature? What’s the average social-economic norm. Are there constant or intermittent sounds of the day/night? One editor I met recently said he felt like the sense of smell was the least utilized sense he noted from submitting writers.

    Dialogue, alas I tend to write in dialect, but I’ve also recently met an editor who said that reading dialect, is distracting to her and she thought it would be to readers, too. Droppin’ the “g” and abbreviating words, ’cause you’re talkin’ southern is something I do quite a bit and I enjoy reading dialect, but I can certainly see how and why it would be distracting to readers. They have to decipher as they go and it can slow pacing. Like wise, making characters “sound” french or spanish or some other foreign language might sound right to the writer but not the reader. This is a new lesson for me but in the future I’m considering giving a taste, if you will, of the dialect but perhaps prefacing the dialogue with something like: Jose told him to put the gun down, his accent sounding more Tex Mex, than school taught Spanish. That way, the reader will know the character is speaking with a certain Hispanic dialect, in this case, but perhaps not in the classical sense.

    1. I think you are spot on about dialog–and your editor has a point as well. One way to introduce a French or Spanish (or Russian or German) character is just to go very light. An occasional oui, si, da or ja will put the nationality in the reader’s mind. Also, an occasional grammar slip that is characteristic of an English learner will help. But any phonetic transcription will generally drive readers (and editors) crazy.

        1. Ditto. Having spent some time in Europe with people from various countries using English as a second language, the one thing I learned are differences as they translate from their native language – French, Spanish, German, etc. – into English. And there are always cultural inflections. Not always easy to remember in dialogue, so I think it’s better to suggest it rather than trying to replicate it. Can’t begin to imagine what they think as we try to speak in their language…

  12. In my early twenties and living in New York City, I was—like all my friends—broke. But I managed to get a gig reviewing plays for a now defunct magazine. They didn’t pay me, but I did get two free tickets to a performance every week. One Friday, I might see Earle Hyman in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Classical Theatre of Harlem. The follow, some wonderful unknown (to me) actors in David Edgar’s Pentecost put on by the Barrow Group. From time to time, I still think about those electric evenings, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I focus on the dialogue portion of our prompt. I thought it might be useful to share three mistakes I’ve made myself:

    1) The first mistake is the notion that people in our books should talk exactly like people in real life. But who needs the “hello” at the beginning of a conversation? Who needs polite remarks about commutes and weather? There’s no reason why dialogue in novels shouldn’t be as sharp as what we find on stage. Those lines serve a dual purpose: to sing and to advance the story. Ours can do the same.

    2) Another is the characters sounding alike. It helps to consider what makes a character unique. What’s her background? What are his interests? Everyone has a unique speech pattern, music ranging from staccato to soaring, and it can actually be fun to explore the possibilities.

    3) Finally, the language doesn’t have to be overblown to be compelling. (“I found a nickel. I like it cause the art of it,” says Bobby in Mamet’s American Buffalo.) I believe in reading aloud. This is true of every paragraph, but particularly the exchanges. I imagine acting out these scenes, making note of any places where I stumble. Sometimes I’ll find myself cringing at a bad pun, and that’s one reason why the delete key is so satisfying.

    What mistakes have you made?

      1. It’s a nightmare the whole “phonetic” thing Patrick. Same as you, I’ve used it (albeit sparingly) and I love the way it sounds in my head, but when it is on the page… urgh!

  13. Accurately writing dialogue, settings or historical events is mostly about research.

    Writing dialogue for a character in a story is, to me, a bit like acting. I need to see things as that character sees them, and in order to do that I must essentially become that character, whether it’s a male or female. She must have a back story, which means I need to write one.

    I first have to figure out first what kind of traits I want her to have―extroverted, introverted, loud, quiet, intellectual, reactionary, wallflower, boisterous, short tempered, even tempered, educated, ignorant, easy going, sociopathic―and then I figure out what made her that way. Did she graduate with a master’s degree or did she finish high school? Does she have military training or is she anti-military? Was she raised as a city girl, or is she a country girl? Was she abused as a child or did she have a wonderful childhood? Maybe her parents died when she was a girl or her big brother was killed in combat in Afghanistan.

    All these things that happen in our lives go into making us who we are and effect the way we act, think and speak. Yes, it can get complicated, but people are complicated.

    Gabrielle “Gabe” Lincoln, the lead character in my book THE CAIN PROPHECY (Available Nov. 10) is a complex character. She’s a CIA operative with skills in combat as well as gathering intelligence, and she’s pretty easy going, which is great for those she works with. But she has flaws―she sometimes gets involved with men who don’t treat her well, and tends to party a little more than she should. All of that works together to form her personality and influences her dialogue, the way she interacts with other characters.

    Settings can be tough to get right, but they are usually not as complex as a character, unless the setting IS a character, which can also happen. As an example, my novel LILITH takes place aboard an aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, which was very much a character in the book. A ton of research went into making sure I got every detail right because it was pivotal to the storyline. I even went so far as to spend a few days aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, interacting with the ship’s crew and watching the ship’s various operations while underway. It was a great experience.

    But for some of my books, like my recently released thriller, PRIMORDIAL, it just wasn’t feasible for me to travel to the island of Crete, so I had to study everything I could on the internet, talk to people who had been there and watch any relevant YouTube videos that I could find. I learned a lot about the history of the island, as well, which I needed for the first chapter.

    Learning the history of a place is as important as the setting itself. In my stories I like give at least a little history of everyplace my characters go to help give a better feel for that character’s surroundings, whether it be Egypt, Australia or Washington, DC. Again, as with settings, it involves research on the internet, in the library, or talking to people who have been there.

    So I think accuracy comes down to one thing: how much we as writers are willing to research. It’s not necessary to know every little detail, because one can get bogged down and get lost in too much detail. But we need enough to make readers feel as if they are there, or that they know our characters well enough to feel empathy. The more time we take to know our characters, research our settings and study our history, the more convincing our story will be, and the deeper our readers will be drawn in.

  14. I’ve been fascinated with comedic impressionists since I was a kid, and still am. Rich Little, Frank Gorshin, Billy Chrystal, all the way up to Phil Hartman (RIP), Darrell Hammond and Tina Fey, these people are just fantastic impressionists. They can make themselves look enough like their targets to trick me into suspending belief, but the visual side of the performance has little to do with hooking me. What really sets a great impressionist’s performance apart is two things: First, their ability to bend their voices to the rhythm and melody to that of whichever celeb they are lampooning. Second and almost as important, the substantive words they speak, their comedic script, rings true to the character they portray. To me, these are the two basic features of great dialogue in written fiction: the rhythm and melody of the words your character speaks sound distinctive to that character, and the substance of the words reveals the essence of the character’s personality and advances the story you’re telling.

    There are other features of great dialogue, too, in a general sense. Generally, the exchanges between characters should be short and snappy, not longer than two or three sentences. There are exceptions to this, however, depending on the scene you have in mind and the personality of the character you’ve created. Also, dialogue exchanges are like any good story and are a lot more interesting when they branch out into unpredictable directions and are rife with tension. So, if one character starts out a chain of dialogue by saying, “Man, it’s hot out here, isn’t it?” you probably don’t want to have the other character reply, “No kidding,” which is what most of us would say in real life. Instead, you might consider having the replying character blow the other one off by pausing a bit, looking the other dead in the eye and saying something like, “Did you bring me my money or not?”

    Great dialogue in fiction, then, is compressed and dramatic, and to that extent isn’t what you hear between people talking in everyday life. The trick is making it seem like two people are talking in real life.

    1. Short and snappy dialogue / compress and dramatic is a great tip, Richard. We don’t speak in Hamlet-like soliloquies. That reminds me of writing instructor I had once who said that if we are writing a long bit of dialogue we are probably “info dumping” or putting in dialogue backstory or information the two people talking would already know — thus putting it there only for the reader.

  15. So, how to accurately write dialogue, settings or historical events.

    I don’t write about historical events (at least not so far), so I’ll skip that portion.

    I think it’s fair to say that, even as a print junkie (I read while I pee) who has read a crazy amount of books, I have been more influenced by films when it comes to storytelling. I want you to have a stake in the outcome for my characters, I want you to be involved in the rhythm and momentum of my story line, and I’d like it if you laugh with me once in a while, but what I really want is to keep you in the scene. Continually, scene by scene. And so, looking back, I see that I tend to write cinematically. If I’m successful, I have engaged your attention by immersing you in my fictional world and, in the process, brought characters to life and caused a story to unfold. Or, conversely, bringing characters to life as a story unfolds, if properly done, engages a reader in an immersive experience that is cinematic in effect.
    Now, some filmmakers like to dwell on visuals, and the same is true for novelists. I like a sparse style; I don’t care about what every character is wearing or the print and fabric of the curtains. On the other hand, I (very occasionally) love a lush descriptive style, if it means something for the story or its characters; Jame Lee Burke comes to mind. So setting for me is, back to my premise, about orienting my reader in a scene so that there is a visual framework for the character to do what needs to unfold given his or her predicament, motivation, and personality.
    As to the crafting of dialogue, I don’t craft dialogue. I imagine the character. I know how he or she will talk, internally and out loud. There’s no trick to it. Know your characters. I have, however, been guilty of forcing dialogue by creating banter that probably wouldn’t happen in real life; it’s part of a style–a trope in the noir detective genre that aims at being witty but can wind up sounding too cute.

    1. Excellent point — I’m thinking a middle-aged woman from the Philly Main Line is going to speak a lot differently than a biker chick from a couple of counties west or north…much less the opposite gender from the same locales.

  16. Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.

    If you listen to people speaking on the bus, or subway, the words dance and flow like rhythm. If you can catch that beat, keep it snappy and bouncing along like the back beat on the good song, you’ll nail dialogue in my opinion.

    I think thrillers really need that snap of dialogue. It needs to be like a rushing river not a babbling brook.

    It’s interesting that a few folks have mentioned Elmore Leonard in the above discussion. For me he is the king of “real” dialogue, it bounces off the page and slaps you on both cheeks and is out the door before you’ve had time to shut the book.

    If you can do that, you’re writing good dialogue.

    When it comes to historical dialogue, I like it to sound as contemporary as is possible (within reason.) Too many “thee” “thou” “good sir” and “verily”s have me slapping my forehead and reaching for the modern fiction I’m afraid.

  17. Like your points about snap of dialog, especially when “real” or “normal” dialog intensifies remarkable, out-of-ordinary situations — the kind of people presented as routine but turn out to be the sort of pals we’d love to have or the person who scares the willies out of us.

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