Well-crafted dialogue is especially important in memoirs and historical fiction. My book, In Wake of a Following, takes place from 1949 – 1959. Looking back on this decade, my mind swirled with Norman Rockwell images; baseball’s Babe Ruth, episodes of Father Knows Best, and John Wayne – one of Hollywood’s legends and, to my surprise, the face of Camel cigarettes in the 50’s and 60’s.
To ensure I was writing true, I researched economic conditions, fashion trends and common expressions dating back to the 1940’s. I found much of the mid-century phrasing memorable, from “Say pal, you’re a regular kind of guy” to “How about I show you a knuckle-sandwich?” It didn’t take long before the habits of 1950’s rural life became fodder for my creative prose.
Like watching an episode of Mad Men, it was easy to get swept away in the mannerisms and jargon. I studied old black and white films on the cable’s AMC channel and read vintage Good Housekeeping articles. These long-lost archives provided a glimpse into a world where smoking was considered the norm, bottled milk was delivered to your door and men’s hair cream had several uses – like adding shine to a 57’ Chevy hubcap.
I am a huge fan of The Beav who, to me, personified 50’s charm. The following is an excerpt from Leave it to Beaver, circa 1958:
“Do you really like me, Wally?”
“Well, I guess so,” Wally said.
“Do you like me a whole lot?”
“Look, don't get sloppy on me. I might just slug you one.”
Add a central Wisconsin accent to this juicy lingo, and you’ll understand my challenge.
Like any well-balanced diet, I used slang in moderation and went light on the saucy dialogue. It took willpower. I worked hard to balance a realistic depiction of the 50’s with our fast-paced rhetoric of today. Adding too many “jeepers”, aw-shucks” and “that’s swell” to the dialogue would risk creating a caricature representation of my beloved characters.
Call it a job hazard, the old expressions eventually wormed their way into modern life. One night, while watching Project Runway, I mindlessly remarked, “Realty TV sure is killer-diller!” My husband laughed hysterically. And I have added proof that children repeat what we say (and not just swear words). Yesterday, when I asked my 7-year-old son to take out the trash, he said, “Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy.”
I have a question for writers out there. What is your dialogue challenge? Has vernacular from a bygone era found a place in your current work-in-progress?