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Did he just say “intercourse”?

February 23, 2010

Did you know that in Victorian England, men and women often had intercourse several times a day?

And men were known to ejaculate quite often.

I didn’t know that until I read the dialogue in some of the short stories in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle, of course, wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories in the 1890’s during the reign of Queen Victoria. Back then, “intercourse” meant conversation and “ejaculate” meant “exclaim.”

Today, we’d get calls from the PTA about such language, but in order to write believable dialogue, we have to talk like the characters would really talk or really did talk.

As readers, we have to understand this and take it in context. Thus, when we hear Little Richard sing “Good golly, Miss Molly, she sure likes to ball,” we have to know that “ball” in the 50s meant “to party.”

Or when Doris Day crooned “By the light of the silvery moon, I want to spoon, with my honey and croon love’s tune,” we should make it a point to understand that, in the 1940’s, spooning was holding your loved one close in public, not cuddling up nude in bed after a one-night stand.

As a writer, it’s my job to make the readers understand that. Don’t be fooled by those novels set in the Old West or Shakespearean times or in a fantasy realm akin to Lord of the Rings or in the 50s like Rebel Without A Cause where the characters talk like your next-door neighbors. That is the author being lazy.

Unfortunately, I have been lazy at times in the past with my own dialogue. I’ve produced enough cheese to supply Mickey D’s for a year. But, I’ve learned a lot over the years, so let me tell you some of the things I have learned and see if you recognize them from your reading (if you’re a writer, learn from them, please).

#1) Use real people

Do the characters in your book read like the cast of Jersey Shore? Do they talk like them or are they as believable as Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer and  Russ Tamblyn passing for Puerto Rican in West Side Story?

It took me a few years, but, eventually, I got away from copying people from the movies. Why? Because those people in the movies are actors. They are acting.

I’ve been halfway around the world in my travels with the Navy, with newspapers and magazines. I’ve built up a wealth of knowledge and experience. For example, I can have a Boston character say “wicked” every third word and feel comfortable about it because I grew up in the Boston area.

I also freely borrow from all people. For example, I copy black people from all walks of life, just so you readers don’t think we all just walked off the set of the latest Friday movie.

Note: Please try to avoid stereotyping. Not every Italian sounds like Joe Pesci. Maybe they talk like Joe Pantoliano, Annabella Sciorra, Al Pacino, Jennifer Esposito,  Vanessa Ferlito or Robert DeNiro.

#2) I ask the experts

An “expert” is anyone who knows more than me or has more direct experience in something than I do. Therefore, we are all surrounded by experts. If I want a character to sound believable when he talks about military intelligence, I ask my older brother, who was an intelligence officer in the Army.

If I don’t have an expert readily at hand, I hit the Internet to make sure the terms I need are correct. After all, Devereaux Marshall Fox, the male lead in Land of the Blind, can’t be in Antarctica enjoying the Aurora Borealis, now can he? Not when the Aurora Borealis is also called the Northern Lights, better seen in Alaska from the inn of C.J. Ellisson’s Vampire Vacation.

#3) I take hints, suggestions and criticism

With a grain of salt, sometimes, but I take it. The readers offer insights that I can’t get — namely, the views and perspectives of other people. Maybe the reader is from Brooklyn and doesn’t think my Brooklynite cop sounds authentic. Or maybe the reader is a retired general who points out that, in real life, a one-star general would not be talking to a battalion as if he were in charge of it.

When I was younger, I had this penchant for contradicting my dialogue. I tried to write a story based on the old TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Whenever the ship was in danger, I would have the captain order “Left right rudder!”


In other words, I was just being verbose in saying “go straight.”

Someone was kind enough to point that out to me that it should be “Left full rudder!”

#4) Shift the attributes

Professionally, I am a journalist. A sports writer specifically. In the journalism world, dialogue generally begins with the quote and ends with ,” such-and-such said.

C.J. pointed out that I use this form of attribution way too much. And I agree.

I guess it won’t kill me to put the attribute first such as Jodi groaned, “I knew you were going to say that.” Or “I knew you were going to say that.” Jodi slapped her head and groaned.

I guess variety can be the spice of talk.

A special note: one thing I do disagree with from many of my critics is the word “said.” Everyone tells me to just use “said.” Can you imagine using that word fifty kazillion times in a novel? I like to use synonyms such as “stated,” “explained,” “noted,” “exclaimed,” eh, I mean “ejaculated.”

#5) And finally, check, recheck and then check again

Once I do the dialogue, I often post it on But, before I do that, I say it to myself over and over again to see if it sounds natural. If it sounds like real people having a real conversation.

Because, if I don’t believe the dialogue I’ve written, then what’s the point of showing it to other people?

Feel free to leave a comment and let us know what kind of dialogue you like.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 23, 2010 8:18 am

    I like dialog that works with my inner eye to transition between the view of characters as they speak to each other. I hate having to stop and figure out who’s talking.

    • February 23, 2010 11:32 am

      I agree. I’ve always hated a conversation between two people where there are no attributes. It may work for a few times, but you have to remind people who’s saying what and in what order. Few things are worse than having to go back and figure out who’s talking in what order.

  2. Harley D. Palmer permalink*
    February 23, 2010 2:41 pm

    This is full of some great tips Greg. A website I have been building with a friend of mine has a “Random Tidbits” page that has a list of alternate words for said (also for walk/run, but that’s a different annoyance right? LOL) Each time you refresh the page it gives you a different word. Before that page was there, I turned to my trusty thesaurus. I will admit that I fall into this trap really easily, especially on the first draft of my writing. But I try to fix it when I go back for the edit.

    I love that you mention “time period” in this as I think people often just go with the movies, or what they ‘think’ is right based on sterotypes. Or they may have the dialogue right for the area or culture but not with time – it’s a common thing for me to see where they only go so far in their research.

    • February 23, 2010 7:12 pm

      Thanks for reading, Harley. Yes, I agree with the “time period” thing every time I see a movie based on Shakespeare that tries to use colloquial English. We all read Shakespeare in school, so we all know how the characters should talk. I think the best modern Shakespeare movies I’ve seen are “Romeo + Juliet” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, and “Richard III” with Ian McKellen, Anne Archer and Robert Downey Jr.

      Oh and thanks for mentioning the thesaurus. I’ve found it to be an invaluable tool.

  3. February 23, 2010 5:50 pm

    I agree with Harley, great tips Greg! Living in Jersey for twenty years has certainly given me an ear for lots of regional dialects. Now, if I can just add a Jersey character to the cast of V V then I’m all set 😀


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