Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Hoot, Mon! Or Writing A Scottish Historical
I have a book that’s been bouncing around in my computer(s) for years now. (I say computer(s) because most of us can’t make one last longer than 3-4 years max.) It’s a Scottish historical that takes place a few years before the Reformation.
Although I’m familiar with what I’ve written, it’s a big departure from other stories I’ve done. It has battles, love scenes, 16th century castles, intrigue, betrayal, a bit of the paranormal—all the good stuff. But it’s different. The dialogue is way different. The lifestyle is much different. There are many solid reasons for why I’ve tended to stick to late 19th century American stories, one of which is that research is a lot easier. I’ve studied that era enough that I often don’t need to look things up because I know them.
I didn’t know anything about clans, chieftains, wars, etc., except for other fiction I’ve read, and that doesn’t count. There’s a certain forgiving elasticity in fiction, but some historical facts have to be correct. I have to be sure they're correct. If I said the Battle at Culloden took place in 1890, someone would certainly notice.
I think my biggest problem has been with the dialogue. Like the US or any other country for that matter, Scotland has different dialects and trying to identify the correct usage is tricky. Then there’s the matter of avoiding anachronisms. Saying “Your ride is awesome, dude!” in an American historical is obvious and easy to catch. But how about, “Fer a yung la' prob scouser yer gorra nauld edon yer shoulders la, gud look son, I think you'll do it.” Excuse me, but whaaa? This seems to have something to do with pub crawling, but I couldn’t swear to it.
Then there’s the matter of North, Highland North, Mid, and South, with some other geographical miseries thrown in too. “Pittin the mither tongue on the wab!” Eh? I beg your pardon! This particular phrase is Ulster Scots, to confuse matters even further—north far enough but on the wrong island. And it’s contemporary besides; the wab means the web, as in Internet.
I have a great book I got on a remainders table at Barnes & Noble, The Scots Dialect Dictionary. It’s big with lots of listings, but the problem is that it lists the Scots word or phrase first and then a mostly understandable English equivalent. If I had a month with absolutely nothing else to do, I would create a database from this book so I could look up whatever I needed, in English first.
Writing any sort of dialect is a matter of careful balance. Not enough worked in and the story could be set at anyplace and any time. Too much and we’re back to “pittin the mither tongue gorra nauld edon yer shoulders la.” It will swamp the reader and overshadow the story.
Writing The Irish Bride was somewhat easier because I had great audio to listen to for cadence and arrangement of words, thanks to the late and wonderful storyteller and teacher, Frank McCourt. I have his books on tape and CD and that was a big help.
My most accessible audio reference for this book has been Groundskeeper Willie on the Simpsons, and I don’t think that’s going to do the trick.
But the story is coming along fine, thank ye verra much.