Research Notes · 06/21/2013

Happy Talk

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Richard Melo writes about Happy Talk (Red Lemonade).

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‘Sick, sick, sick, sick, sick!’ Or How I Learned to Write Period Dialogue Without the Aid of a Time Machine

It used to be I would stay up after everyone else in the house was asleep and watch movies from the 1950s with pen and notebook in hand. The reason: I was writing a novel set in the 1950s and wanted the dialogue to sound as authentic as possible. Having taken notes for years as a student and in other ventures, this was strange in that I wasn’t listening for what was said as much as how it was said — I would strip the dialogue of its content, but keep its form of expression. The idea was to create a running list of 1950s idioms and phrases I could pepper throughout my manuscript.

Often I would fall asleep before the movies ended. The next day I would read over my notes, and the entries were pretty out there. Sometimes, the idioms were short, such as ‘the peanut gallery,’ ‘a screw loose,’ and ‘off the deep end.’ Other times, the expressions were longer but so general that no one would be able to identify the source. Random lines include:

What is the matter with you?
You look lousy.
I’ve taken guys twice his size.
Honey, I was only trying to be funny.
It’s his job to protect us taxpayers.

As ordinary as each of those expressions may sound, each has a quality (beyond my ability to describe and analyze) that sounds to my ear like genuine 1950s dialogue.

I filled one notebook after another with dialogue scraps and would read through the random lines while rewriting my manuscript. It’s amazing how often I would find a phrase or expression that would fit perfectly into draft dialogue. I kept re-reading and rewriting with the intent of banishing as many of my twenty-first century linguistic tics as possible from the manuscript.

A good chunk of the next book I’m writing takes place in 1968, and I am using the same process. Even though it was less than 50 years ago, it’s almost like people spoke a different language in 1968. A reader from 2013 can easily comprehend every word, but so many everyday expressions have shifted. The state that today gets referred to as ‘stressed out,’ in 1968 might have been described as ‘pressure,’ ‘anxiety,’ or ‘headaches.’ Bodies were referred to as someone’s ‘build’ or ‘figure,’ and all too often the word ‘flesh’ found its way into conversation. People used ‘pro-’ (as in ‘I’m pro-people’) and ‘-ville’ (as in Splitsville’), and the list goes on. The aim is to avoid most cliches like ‘groovy’ and still get characters to sound like they are living in 1968.

Here are a few quick samples of scrap dialogue looking for a home in my 1968 novel

Out to lunch
Sports fans
Hi, yo, Silver away!
This guy has more dough than Onassis
Sick, sick, sick, sick, sick!

A couple quick pieces of advice for anyone trying this at home: First (and this is more common sense than specific to this process), I suggest erring on the side of keeping dialogue clear, straightforward, and toned down rather than pushing the envelope. There are many instances of phrases and expressions that I badly wanted to insert, but they didn’t serve the story so they were left out. Second, I discovered that the best films for taking notes on genuine, period dialogue were either B movies (because they are often so poorly written that the actors just talk like themselves) and movies in which the actors are allowed to improvise (because even while in character, the actors deliver their lines in the vernacular of their era). When I watched well written movies, I was dazzled by the many fantastic lines, but there was much less that I could use in a work of my own.

See and hear more material inspired by Happy Talk

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Richard Melo is the author of the the new dialogue-driven novel Happy Talk out this month from Red Lemonade. He lives in Portland, Oregon.