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The Setting of Dialogue

June 28, 2010

Setting. Hmmm. My mind’s been turning this topic over for a day or so as I ponder what wisdom I have to offer. I can remember way back as I was studying the craft of writing and reading a how-to-write-a-novel book that the author used this fancy word, milieu, in a section about setting. I had to look up milieu in my Webster’s, which said milieu is a noun, and means place, surroundings, and environment. My how-to-write book said milieu is of utmost importance in a story, and I agree wholeheartedly. I love nothing more than to be transported to some place. That’s why I read. And why I write.

I just finished the fourth and final edit of a book coming out this fall. It’s called I’ll Be Home for Christmas (after Bing Crosby’s famous song) and it’s set in the year 1944, in Watkinsville, Georgia, and in Trenton, New Jersey. Now, I thought I’d researched the milieu of those places fairly well. I studied climate and terrain, and things like the style of homes, travel, clothing, what restaurants were around, etc… Since World War Two is going on in my story, I read a fifty-pound book on the war. I was so proud as I incorporated things about various battles, which products were rationed, and how folks displayed their patriotism.

I sent the first go-round of the book off to my editor and waited, smugly. But, boy was I in for a shock when I got her comments back. I cannot tell you how many red editorial notes there were in the margin of my manuscript, saying, “This dialogue is too modern for this era,” and “This word did not appear until the 1960’s,” and “Julie, this is a fairly modern saying.” I found out I really needed some help on the setting in regard to . . . dialogue. Yes, what my characters were saying, their conversations, evoke a setting. Words like ‘workaholic’ (origin 1968) and ‘zilch’ (origin 1966) and phrases like ‘in denial’ and ‘freak out’ (origin 1967) and ‘into me’ were non-existent in 1944. Lots of slang that we use was not around back then. My editor changed one of the character’s exclamations (which I can’t remember off the top of my head) to “Jeepers!” Jeepers sounds so innocent, and indeed it does sound like something my Mother-in-law, who was my heroine’s age in 1944, would say. When I told my 12-year-old son, he just laughed. He said it sounded like something off of Scooby Doo. In another instance, my editor said that calling someone ‘man’ is a fairly modern thing, and so I had to change some dialogue reading, “Hey, man, you okay?” These examples are just a tiny percentage of what I had to re-write as far as dialogue to bring the setting of 1944 to life.

Speaking of dialogue bringing a setting to life, I was reading Lauretta Hannon’s blog on here from June 24th, and I laughed aloud at the setting her dialogue evoked. Lauretta, author of The Cracker Queen, was saying that one day she’s going to set a scene in the waiting room of a rural Southern hospital. She had lots and lots of examples of the dialogue her characters would use – in regard to illnesses they suffered. Lauretta quoted her Me-Maw saying, ”Oh, I’ve had Cadillacs on my eyes for ten years now. I can’t get ‘em fix-did ‘cause you know Crazy Aint Carrie will steal my pain pills…” Because I had a rural and Southern Me-Maw myself, and because I’ve literally heard every single one of Lauretta’s examples of rural Southerners illnesses, I could SEE that scene in my mind plain as day. I would not have to have any other descriptions of setting; i.e. words about what town it’s in, the way the characters dress, what they drive, the landscape, to BE THERE. When I read Lauretta’s dialogue, I was immediately plunged into the scene, the setting. Those characters were flesh and blood to me as I sat here staring at my computer screen, reading and laughing and nodding my head. I could tell you what they had on, what they ate for breakfast, what they were going to watch on the TV later that night, what was on the backseat of their cars, etc… just by their dialogue.

I’m currently reading a friend’s manuscript and it’s set in 1919 in Greensboro, North Carolina, among educated land-owning gentry. What I’m really appreciating is the setting my author friend is evoking through the dialogue of her characters. Caroline, the heroine, talks often about how hard it is to remember that a proper lady keeps her ankles crossed at all times, and about the Cotillion Club. She says things to her friend like, “The boys will want to fill in our dance card at the beginning of the dance.“ She says, “Do we have enough butter laid by?” and “I took the flivver (that’s what they called Model-T’s) to town Friday morning, first thing, and I almost cranked it myself.” Also, “I saw an aeroplane today.” At one point her daddy asks her, “Are you blaspheming, Caroline?” He answers someone with, ‘People befitting our station as major landowners, as pillars of the community.” These snippets of dialogue whisk me back to 1919, a time when speech was much more stilted.

When I teach writing workshops, one thing I advise my students to do is to keep journals. I tell them it’s okay to eavesdrop and to record snippets of dialogue they overhear. This is about becoming conscious. I’m constantly amazed at what I hear people saying to each other – even on their cell phones while sitting in a stall at a public restroom! A good thing is, when you’re doing this in the name of your writing, your art, bringing a setting to life, it sort of sanctifies the act of eavesdropping. Now, go out there and listen.

Truly, Julie

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