Telling it Like it Was

When writing a novel whose characters are born in the early part of the last century, it is essential that the writer conveys their speech, vocabulary, thinking and behaviour as credibly as possible.  In other words, he needs to tell it like it was then, not like it is now.  This leaves the writer with plenty to ponder, and although it is a challenging task, the rewards are worthwhile.

To illustrate the challenge, one need only watch footage shot during World War Two in which soldiers, politicians and ordinary people speak, to realise that they talked and comported themselves very differently than we do.  As the man said, the past really was another country.

During the war, spoken English (and presumably French and German etc) sounded more clipped and formal.  Sentences were shorter.  Cadence in speech was quite different.  People were stiffer when being interviewed.  Accents were perhaps less pronounced-the famous received pronunciation of Home Counties English dominated.  The sense of humour was simpler.  Irony and sarcasm were rarer; people responded to questions with a ‘straight bat’.  Politeness, and the fear of causing offence, meant that people took longer to get to the point.  And of course, back in the 1940’s, the ‘one liner’ or ‘smart ass’ response to another person’s comment were virtually unknown.  Thank goodness.

Vocabulary too was radically different.  Language evolves constantly-drawing on culture, literature, media, technology, travel, fashion etc.  Slang changes. Words die out with old people, new ones evolve with the young.  Jargon varies with profession, vocation and region.  The writer must consider all of this and more.

The World War Two writer must also heed swear words.  He has to use them, people did, especially in such a stressful and desperate period.  Yet most of the officer class would rarely have said ‘fuck’, particularly in front of their men.  That word (and several other swear words) was considered uncouth. It was perceived as belonging to the working class. Saying it was ‘common’-indicative of a lack of culture and education.  And women, in particular would almost never have sworn.  As with all language, many expletives from the war are nearly extinct (bugger, bally, flippin’, a right Charlie), whereas many of today’s (motherfucker, shit for brains, turdburglar) had not yet evolved or were rarely said.  It’s a bloody minefield!  Almost literally.

By recalling all this, and evoking the way characters would have talked and behaved in the 1940’s, the writer can capture the era and lend authenticity to his work.  This task however, is a serious challenge, because just one slip can spoil a writer’s good work.  And unless the writer is in his nineties and equipped with a formidable memory, it requires considerable research and attention to detail.  And of course, a keen editor with a knowledge of the period.

Yet, character speech is not simply a question of evoking appropriate vocabulary.  Position in society, or social class, created barriers and codes of behaviour among people.  British officers, agents and diplomats for example, were almost always University educated and from privileged backgrounds.  A breed apart, they were often unaccustomed to interacting with ‘ordinary people’.  When they did so, awkwardness and an inability to connect would often result.  And in return, others acted towards them with considerable deference and restraint.  Military orders were carried out unquestioningly, as were commands in other occupations. Superiors were rarely challenged or questioned, partly because it was always assumed they knew what they were doing.  Or if it was not, people were too polite to say so. Because of this, those in higher positions rarely knew what others below them really thought.  And those at the bottom sometimes did not know what their superiors meant.

There were of course exceptions-many soldiers were fiercely loyal to their commanding officers, particularly when the latter displayed courage and real concern for their men.  However, many more were scathing of their superiors, whom they termed ‘toffs,’ and whom they considered aloof, unapproachable and pampered.

Another characteristic the writer must recall, is the prevalence of honour.  The convention that a gentleman’s (or officer’s) word was his bond, still remained. One rarely lied to a  police officer, or a figure of authority, even if he was wearing an enemy uniform.  Respect did not need to be earned.  It was an automatic consequence of status.  While captured allied officers (and men) were entitled to provide only name, rank and serial number, many felt obliged to answer far more searching and damaging questions, simply because it was the ‘done thing’ and was ‘not cricket’ to refuse.

Furthermore, a perception existed in many military and political circles that espionage, assassination etc, even during war, were underhand, and ill-befitting.  Spreading or telling lies, using deception, or mounting undercover operations were seen as somehow dishonest.  A gentleman faced his enemy head on, as he had in the First World War. Spies and undercover agents were seen as a rogue element, as somehow dodging the fight. Real men wore uniforms and carried their weapons in plain view.

To this end, it is almost incredible today, to note the opposition that the British Special Operations Executive (who ran sabotage, disinformation, and the recruitment and training of espionage agents in occupied countries) encountered from the British military and political establishment throughout the war.  In fact, had Churchill not personally championed SOE, it may well have buckled under this pressure, so much was it held in disdain by the conservative majority in positions of power.  Likewise, the American OSS also encountered ‘moral’ opposition from within the USA.

Yet not all people held honour in such high regard. Hitler used the fact that people were much more honest in the 1930’s and 1940’s, to his considerable advantage.  Non-agression pacts, sincere promises, signed conventions and alliances, were all made -and broken -when it suited his purposes. British Prime Minister Chamberlain’s assurance that “I have in my hand, a piece of paper…” from Hitler, that the Nazis planned no military offensives against other countries, reassured most British people. Why?  Because political leaders, even despicable Germans, simply did not tell lies.

Of course, as World War Two progressed, the casualties mounted and atrocities and brutality abounded.  The naivety of prosecuting war with honour and honesty came into question, and tactics, thinking and operations increasingly over-rode these old conventions.  The conscious targeting by allied bombing, of civilian populations in Germany and Japan, are testament to this, even if internal opposition lingered.

Indeed, time changes most things.  Officers and soldiers, who by 1944-5, had seen their colleagues butchered, and who had survived years of shellfire and bullets, became less concerned about swearing, deference, honour and gentlemanly behaviour.  They simply wanted to survive, get home to their families, and forget.  Quite how they achieved that, mattered little.

For the writer, there is therefore the task of capturing in words and actions, first the prevalence and then the erosion, of naivety, politeness, innocence, and honour as the war progresses. Put simply, the soldier of 1939 would have been a very different person by 1945.  This internal and external change, however, is partly what continues to make the war such a compelling subject for a novel.

In capturing the language and behaviour of a character convincingly, the writer also conveys the character’s background, thinking, morals, beliefs, social status and so on, without having to resort to long passages of narrative summary to fill in the blanks.   And in achieving that, the writer is able to plunge the reader into the period in history in which his character lived. Telling it like it was is a hard battle, but definitely one worth fighting.

And on that note, toodle-pip old chum, or have a nice day, whichever you prefer.

3 thoughts on “Telling it Like it Was

  1. Can’t disagree with anything you say about the language and mores of the times. Society was very class conscious and people ” knew their place”. Their place was often reflected in how they spoke, which still to-day separates the educated from the others,as a wide vocabulary has always been a hallmark of a good formal education.
    I was surprised to learn just recently that 80 per cent of National Service Officers in the armed forces were privately educated, so even as late as the early 1960’s many old concepts about the so called Officer Class still remained. When one remembers that dentists and doctors were automatically given a Commission,it means that even fewer than 20 per cent of the officers were state educated young men commissioned via the rigours of W.O.S.B. and officer cadet training school .
    Happily things are improving, but slowly.
    Officers no longer have batmen either, and spoken accent is SUPPOSED not to matter.


  2. Nothing to throw away in your post. But, first point, we wear, despite ourselves, a sort of clothing made of attitudes. The way we look, the way we use our hands, the way we touch things, the way we don’t, the way we stand, the way we walk, the way we shut up, and so on … A famous French author, whose name escapes me, maybe Celine, wrote that he was able to recognize a French, only by his smile on a b/w photo. So true! This second skin, which varies depending on the country, social class, education, periods of time, defines us long before we open our mouths. For instance, I guess that a professional soldier, especially if he is graduated, will never put his hands in his pockets as workers or peasants, tired of a long slog, often do. I’m sure George would agree with me to say that a good writer needs fist to be a good painter. Second point, related to your previous post, how to entertain the reader when speaking into a rigid, codified, and laconic language of yesteryear? There must be a balance between characters barking like gangsta rappers (see recent movies) and linguistic realism.


    • Thanks for this. I especially like your second point-I agree that there is no point sacrificing the reader’s entertainment and his comfort of reading for the sake of precise replication of the way people talked at a certain time. In other words, don’t bore the reader with passages of dialogue, that may be an accurate reflection of how people talked, but that take ages to say anything interesting.

      A more general problem facing the writer of historical fiction, is that we now live in the era of instant gratification. Everything happens more quickly now, and a reader’s patience is shorter than it was. Therefore, the writer has to make things happen faster than they would probably have happened in reality.


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