Re-Creating Past Conversations

Fact not fiction.Re-creating dialogue is often troublesome for family history writers.  We’re told we can re-create scenes using action, description and dialogue. We have our family history research and social history research to re-create the action and description but what about the dialogue? How do we write dialogue when we don’t have recorded conversations or transcripts to support these conversations?  There are a few guidelines we can employ in writing our scenes and re-creating conversations that will allow us to feel confident we haven’t over stepped the line from fact to fiction.

Why we need dialogue in our family history stories.

 We cannot avoid the use dialogue because it makes us uncomfortable to write. Dialogue serves and important purpose in our family history stories. Dialogue helps to reveal the personality of your ancestors. Dialogue is not as dense looking on the page and therefore it can help to move the story along or slow it down.  It also helps to break up the repetitiveness of the narrator’s voice. Dialogue is not window dressing but a vehicle to convey important information in your ancestor’s story.

Sources to Re-creating Dialogue

There are several sources you can rely on to help you re-create dialogue.

  • Notes from an oral history interview and direct quotes from interviews can help shape dialogue in your stories.
  • Quotes from diaries, letters, affidavits or other documents can be constructed into dialogue. You can use these sources to give the illusion of dialogue in your narrative.

While we emphasize that dialogue should never be made up, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule.

  • You can look to remembered conversations to add dialogue. Perhaps you remember your father telling you a story about his grandfather or a conversation you had with your grandmother but you can’t recall the conversation verbatim. You can recreate the conversation capturing the essence of the exchange, along as you are open about the recollection.
  • You can also create habitual or typical dialogue. Habitual dialogue is merely capturing the flavour of a conversation that happened in real life, demonstrating the sort of talk that went on, but you stop short of claiming that it actually happened. Be clear about this. This is where you’ll cue the reader with inference cues such as usually, or always.

Phillip Gerard explains habitual dialogue in his book Creative Nonfiction,

“You’re actually interjecting a carefully constructed piece of fiction within the larger nonfiction, to make a point, to capture a flavour. ……

Honesty, giving the reader clear signals about exactly what kind of truth you’re claiming, literal truth of the event, emotional truth, truth by hypothetical illustration, approximate truth of memory, or merely the truth of intuition guide by special insight.”

He adds,

“Beware that you’re dancing around that line between fiction and fact- which is fine, so long as you never forget where the line is.”

With that in mind consider these other resources you can draw on in re-creating dialogue.

  1. Consider the circumstances and culture of your ancestor. A farmer in Ireland is not going to have the same voice as a southern belle or a sailor.  Take your cues from the history and cultural research around that ancestor.
  2. Consider using a word or phrase in your ancestor’s native tongue, it can help bring a sense of voice and authentic dialogue.
  3. Characters tags are common words your ancestors may have used repeatedly in their speech. Including them in your dialogue helps to add authenticity to their dialogue.
  4. Keep your dialogue informal.  Dialogue does not occur in full sentences.

In creative nonfiction and family history writing, you are sanctioned to employ a certain amount of assumptions and conjecture to re-creating dialogue. Keep your dialogue simple when your knowledge of the conversation is narrow.  Keep your dialogue within the framework of the known facts of the event and the ancestors it involved.

If you’ve done your research you should have an in-depth knowledge of your ancestor, you understand the situation they were in, understand their motivations, and have a sense of their feelings and reactions.  You are in an excellent position to re-create a conversation that captures this moment in your ancestors life, and you’re  poised perfectly to bring that conversation to life on the page for your reader.