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I am currently writing a story that is set in pre-WWI USA/America. I do not mind conducting research about the locations and the time. I do want to understand what experiences my characters will have and what are the general trends/fashions of the era.

However, I am not confident that I could replicate the way people spoke back then. I am not a native English speaker and I generally talk and write the way my surroundings do. I fear that if I try to imitate the manner of speaking in these days, I will not be able to really express my characters properly. It is possible that I will get some idioms and so forth wrong. Hence, I would like to avoid this issue completely.

Any suggestions on approaches to this issue. I believe that people write historical epics and that not all of them have conducted rigorous research to imitate accurately all the mannerisms of the era.

Any comment on the topic will be helpful :) .

  • I am confused about what you are asking. Your title mentions 'accent'. Your question mentions 'proverbs'. Obviously 'proverbs' is just a translation error, but I'm not sure what you are worried about getting wrong. If you can explain it, I would be happy to edit in the proper word for you. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 3 '18 at 15:32
  • @ThomasMyron Chris edited my post to express accurately what I mean. I mean dialogue between characters and not accent actually. – Snifkes Aug 3 '18 at 16:43
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In general, accents should match the character, not necessarily the setting. If you make the setting clear, and give the character an accent that matches the setting, it will suggest the character grew up in that area and maybe has never moved away or traveled much.

On the other hand, for any character whose accent does not match the setting, it tells us they are from somewhere else. Or they might not have an accent from another place, but a particular way of talking that tells us about who they are. For instance, some Americans might say "I got no reason to lie", and others might say, "I am at a loss to conceive of why I would choose to prevaricate in this instance", even if they are from the same place - just depending on their upbringing and education, perhaps.

For your specific example, I was born in America and have lived here all my life, and I have no idea if people spoke differenlyt before WWI or how they spoke differently. I suggest you write with a modern American English style, and make the manner of speaking match the characters as they would talk today, at least in your first drafts.

The more concerned you are with accuracy, especially as a non-native speaker, the more you'll want to get help from someone who knows. This might be a fellow writer who has a better understanding of American English than you, or a historian who knows how people used to talk, or a linguist or anyone who has specialized knowledge.

If you want to do it all yourself, then I suggest you read books that were written in the time period your story is set in. One thing I have noticed in early 20th century American literature is not so much people talking differently (although the words for many things are different), but the morality seems very different from today. Reading both fiction and non-fiction from the time period in question will give you a lot of information about how things were.

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As someone who has always hated research, and only reluctantly accepted the irreplaceable necessity of it, I have to ask: Why set it in a time and place you already know you won't be able to evoke accurately?

Could you recast this as a story in a less-specified setting loosely based on pre-WWI USA instead? I've read plenty of successful books where the exact time and place aren't quite pinned down, and may never have actually existed (as presented).

If you do want to use this time and place and make it at all authentic, there's no substitute for the research --however, it doesn't necessarily have to be onerous. There's not a ton of surviving pre-WWI films, but those that still exist are pretty widely and freely available, take advantage of them. There are also writer's guides written specifically for people like you.

  • Yes, I was wondering about giving-up the specific setting too. However, I am withdrawn to it; so, it is a choice made due to affection rather than necessity. Thank you though for the comment and the editing as well! – Snifkes Aug 3 '18 at 16:48
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Does it have to be? No, it doesn't have to be. Could it be beneficial? Yes.

Dune isn't historical fiction, but the author meticulously crafts a way of speaking for his characters. This makes the book difficult read (especially considering the author drops made up words on you without any definition), but it helps the world feel move alive. It helps the reader get immersed in the story.

This is (in my opinion at least) the greatest benefit from trying to mimic the way past generations spoke. For historical fiction, it also make you (as the author) look more credible since you took the time to study dialogue of the time.

It isn't required in writing - few things are - but it could definitely be helpful.

One word of advice: if you decide not to be accurate in dialogue, attempt to not sound too much like the language today. Avoid using idioms and phrases associated with a modern era. Again, this isn't required, but it doesn't require much work and helps with the reader's immersion.

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Generally speaking, yes. However, it may not be always doable.

There are many literary examples from the turn of XX century USA. A writer usually studies these examples and tries to emulate them. Actually, after reading a lot of period writing, this may even come naturally.

But if we dig deeper into the history, not only amount of writing gets smaller, modern reader would have a difficulty understanding that writing. So what authors usually do is creating a "period mix" where vocabulary is mostly modern, but peppered to some extent with period words, and an accent which is thought to be prevailing in that era is conveyed in writing.

There are some things to consider when designing this "period mix".

  • Avoid factual anachronisms. Pre-WWI people would not refer to the public figures, brands and buildings that were become known only later. Sounds simple, but a surprisingly big number of period writers do this mistake;
  • Avoid linguistic anachronisms. Pre-WWI person would not say "Hey, dude, where have you been?" and neither "Where hast thou wandered?"
  • Don't overdo period vocabulary and accent. It may become a harder reading.

Good luck!

  • And remember that, while young women worked, they really were looking to get married and have children. They stayed in the home (it was hard work back then!) and only had paying jobs if economically necessary. Don't forget smoking, drinking, racism, sexism, crazy & disabled people stuck in the attic or sanitariums, etc. – RonJohn Aug 4 '18 at 12:43
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If your readers are familiar with how people spoke at the time when your story is set, then yes, you need to write dialogue the way people spoke. An example would be the Fifties. People are familiar with how people spoke at that time through movies and tv series that are still popular today, and if you set your story there and let your characters speak like people speak today, that would certainly feel wrong for your readers.

If, on the other hand, you write about a time when language was so different from that of your readers that they would be unable to understand it, you should "translate" what your characters say into modern English. An example would be a novel set in the Middle Ages. Your readers would not be able to follow dialogue in Middle English.

Dialogue from different times is just like dialogue from foreign languages. Even if some of your readers probably know Spanish, you still don't write dialogue in Spanish just because your story takes place in Spain (if you write English for an English-speaking audience).

Everything inbetween, that is, everything that is unfamiliar but intelligible, is up to you.

What you must always and at any price avoid are anachronisms. You can modernize pronunciation and spelling, but do not use words and phrases that did not exist at the time. Don't have the knight greet the lady with "hey babe", unless you want to create a comedy (see for example the movie The Knight's Tale for examples of anachronistic humor). Look in a dictionary like the OED that lists historic meanings if you are unsure.

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