David Mitchell and Inventing ‘Inaccurate But Plausible’ Dialogue

Reading “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” was another amazing moment in my education about what historical fiction can be.

Two of my favorite historical novels--"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" and "Signal & Noise."

My first watershed moment occurred earlier this year, when I read “Signal & Noise” by John Griesemer. I devoured the whole 593-page novel, all the while thinking, “Oh YES! Now this is the kind of engrossing story I want to learn how to tell with my fiction.”

But today I’m talking about Mitchell. Again. I know I’ve already glowed about the innovative complexity and thematic wonders of “Cloud Atlas.”

“The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,” Mitchell’s latest, has a more traditional structure, with the title character being one of several point-of-view characters. The story’s about a young Dutchman, who, in order to win the favor of his beloved’s father, agrees to clerk for the Dutch East Indies Company at a trading post on Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, for five years.

Jacob de Zoet is set up as a fair and impartial man. His is a voice to believe in, and his careful observations lead the reader to understand this unusual place. When the book opens, in 1799, Dejima was the only port Japan opened to the West, and the Dutch had a monopoly on it.

As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes personally entwined in Japanese politics and the lives of the other foreigners on Dejima. He’s still rational, but his beliefs are tested and changed by being exiled from home.  Mitchell invites us into a moment in history that feels real, whole and true. The day after finishing the novel, I went back and reread the first two chapters because I wanted to prolong the experience.

Note that I said “feels” real. Mitchell addressed, in his afterword, the challenge of creating authentic dialogue in historical novels. I’ve struggled with that in my work-in-progress–trying to write conversations in English that are supposed to sound like 19th century French. Here’s what he had to say:

“To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect–I call it ‘Bygonese’–which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.”

Mitchell goes on to talk about pitfalls and anachronisms that sneak into such endeavors. In fact, the whole afterword, about historical fiction and its place in literature, is well worth reading.

Years ago, I fell in love with Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” in part due to his made-up early American language. Sheer brilliance. And now, thanks to Mitchell’s essay, I have a phrase to explain it–“inaccurate but plausible.” I love the idea of creating “Bygonese” and want to know about other writers’ experiences with creating such dialogue.

Have you written historical fiction, or speculative fiction, or fantasy, or dialogue in another language, where you’ve had to substitute English words or phrases and create your own rules or even your own dictionary? If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences, challenges and successes.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
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18 Responses to David Mitchell and Inventing ‘Inaccurate But Plausible’ Dialogue

  1. Liz says:

    you’re tempting me, laura. great review.


  2. I’ve never had to deal with this per se, but being a Southern writer, I write in the Southern dialect which usually is words without “g.” Example: “goin'” I find it hard to remember to type that out even though I speak like that. I also have to remember to “talk like a teenager” which is more difficult than it should be. So, although it’s not the same, I can understand the need to keep the dialogue feeling “real” and at least “plausible.”

    The book sounds amazing too!

    • Interesting, Emerald. Teen-speak, and southern expressions, must present similar challenges, although both are less removed from the present day than writing historical dialogue. You still have to create a particular lexicon of terms and usages that must stay consistent throughout your story.

      • It’s the consistency that gets me, honestly. In my paranormal novel (my current WIP), I have people who aren’t from the South although they’re living in it. So, I’m balancing the Southern with non-Southern dialects. Like I said, it’s not the same problem as yours, but I feel as if I can sympathize. 🙂

        • It’s definitely the same kind of logistics! You don’t want one of your non-southerners slipping into “goin'” and the like… And on one hand, I feel like this kind of issue should be resolved in rewrites, i.e. a round going through looking for such things, but at the same time, how your characters sound is so much a part of a book that it needs to be addressed (even resolved?) early.

          For example, my French protagonist is getting to know a British expat in this section of my novel, and I wonder if they sound different enough. They both sound quite formal, and he speaks English with a European background, so they’re ending up sounding the same in dialogue. Should I rework her voice until it’s different, and use that as a way to strengthen her character development, or should I assume, with similar economic backgrounds and family history, they’d both speak “American” 19th century English similarly? Ugh! For the moment, I’m just trying to plow through new scenes…

          • I completely agree. How they speak is essential to catching who they are as a person, so you’re completely correct in assuming it should be taken care of early. However, at times, you have to focus on the new scenes. Re-writes are fantastic things! 😉

            As far as your French protagonist and British expat goes, I believe that you’ll figure out the right thing to do. Especially in revisions. 🙂 And as your post said, it just has to be plausible right? (And I know you weren’t directly asking my that question, but I still felt the need to weigh in because I know how important feedback is when you’re feeling the need to pull your hair out!)

            • Yes, plausible. Thanks for your answer, too, Emerald. I was hoping you’d weigh in! Because I do feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels while working on this final third. I’m wondering if what I’ve plotted is overly ambitious or if I can pull it off as an ending. And then all the smaller questions and thoughts are getting in the way of the actual writing. Some days. Other days, I just keep plugging.

  3. Oh, yes, I agree completely about Mason & Dixon. I’m obviously obsessed with Inherent Vice, but I do think that Mason & Dixon is Pynchon’s masterpiece. The language, the story, the characters, the view of history, the ending (Pynchon sometimes has trouble with those), and the humor (including all the Quaker jokes!). Wonderful book.

    I have never attempted any sort of historical fiction myself. At least not yet.

    • I was hoping you’d comment about Mason & Dixon, Anthony! It’s still one of my favorite epic novels, and I should reread it sometime soon, because I think, years after reading it the first time, it has stuck with me and even influenced this current novel. (Although I didn’t realize that for a while.) I remember reading certain passages aloud and laughing so hard I cried.

      Are any of his other books historical? I don’t believe so but you’re the expert!

      • It depends how you define “historical.” Only the first two were contemporary, set at the time he was writing them (early and mid-1960s, respectively). Gravity’s Rainbow was set during and immediately after World War II. Some of Vineland was set during the 1980s, when it was written, but a lot of it is set in (and about) the 1960s. Against the Day (which I have never managed to read — too heavy — I mean physically heavy 🙂 ) was set, I believe, across the 20th century. Inherent Vice is set in 1970 (which he nails, by the way).

        The thing that Pynchon doesn’t usually get enough credit for is his use of language. I read his books and I just marvel at the sentences. One after another, there they come. I think I wrote somewhere that pretty much every one of his sentences is better than any sentence of mine. But he gets much more notice for his wild plots and zany character names. I think Mason & Dixon is the book where his mastery of language becomes impossible to ignore.

        I do wish his books were available as e-books.

        Your mention of influence is makes me think that, as much as I admire Pynchon, I don’t think he’s influenced me in any way. The odd thing is that in three days I may be meeting one of my real influences. It’s a slim chance, but it is possible. If my Sunday night post is incoherent, you’ll know why.

        • Fascinating. By a lot of measures you could call Pynchon a historical novelist, then. Mason & Dixon is the one that stands out to me as historical, of course. Your point about Pynchon’s language is brilliant. He’s so renowned for his inexplicable twists and turns of plot and those crazy character names, as you mention. The artistry is what makes him such a craftsman, though.

          Ooh, I look forward to popping over to your blog Monday morning to see who you’re talking about and if the meeting happened!

  4. What a great review. I love historic fiction, and haven’t read enough of it lately. You’ve whetted my appetite.

  5. Dunx says:

    You’re really making me want to read Mitchell. Cloud Atlas that you talked about before sounds especially my kind of thing, and sounds like it covers some of the same themes I am trying to pour into my own main WIP.

    Inventing plausible-sounding language in a non-modern context is something I have to deal with, certainly, although I haven’t done a very thorough job so far.

    My WIP is set on another world in a future where English was explicitly quashed thousands of years earlier (although it is still kicking around as what amounts to a liturgical language). The day to day language is something else, using a different writing system akin to Arabic. I don’t really know what it sounds like though, since it doesn’t have any particular bearing on the story.

    What I’ve done is to use odd place names and speech constructions which sound archaic – not quite going to the thees and thous, but veering into declamatory language. The intent is to make it sound staid, as if the speaker is constrained by too many social pressures.

    • I definitely recommend “Cloud Atlas,” Duncan. It’s both literary and speculative, and the way he moves through time and story is amazing, and certainly would be useful in the context of what you’re working on. There’s a definite echo between one of Mitchell’s protagonists and the world you describe of English being quashed. The idea of creating archaic speech constructions is fascinating. And similar to what I’m doing in my 19th century novel–making it sound old-fashioned by not just word choice, but punctuation and how I arrange the words.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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