I Dinna Kin
Using Dialect and Research in Manuscripts
by Sandy Blair

Thank you all for joining me. The following are suggestions. There are no hard and fast rules.


    To provide usable guidelines for inserting dialect and research into historical manuscripts, so that the reader feels immersed in the period without becoming confused or overwhelmed.
    To provide methods of retaining as much of your color and detail as possible during the editorial process.


    We who love historical fiction do so because we need an escape, a moment’s reprieve from today’s sixty-hour work weeks, blended families, bills, and traffic jams. We also love stories that allow us to readily suspend our disbelief and can take us back to a time when men could be seriously alpha without worrying about political correctness. To a time when men didn’t even know they had a feminine side, much less worried about getting in touch with it. Too, we often hope to learn something new about a country or period we find fascinating. I must confess to being one of those readers who loves richly-detailed books, the thicker the better, but not all readers and editors find long passages describing medieval bleaching methods as fascinating as I, which is why we’re here. 

A Truth:

Adding a “Hoot mon!” or portcullis does not a historical make.

Rich, well-researched settings and clothing details are as important as dialect, if not more so, because what we consider dialect is only our modern interpretation of how our characters might have spoken centuries ago.

Yes, we do have historical records that provide clues, but all who’ve read these antiquities know many of our forebears couldn’t spell to save their souls. When writing in their personal diaries, they often spelled phonetically, frequently giving several interesting spellings to the same word. But which is correct, provides the correct accent?

When writing letters, some of our forebears also went to great pains to appear more educated than they actually were. (The Regency period’s Princess Caroline being a prime example.) That’s not to say people weren’t educated. Many an Englishman, Irishman, and Scot knew a great deal more about ancient mythology, history, astronomy, poetry and the like than we do today, but few had grammar and spelling guidelines to follow, which leads us to the problem of emulating their speech.

Did they really say “My most honorable and revered cousin” when greeting a favorite relative each year at Michaelmas? They used the greeting when writing, may have used the greeting when at formal affairs, but would they really have used it while standing in their own great halls? Today’s man might greet a good friend at the law office with, “Good morning, Bill,” but say, “Hey, bro, how’s it hanging?” in private. It’s likely our forebears had a formal and informal means of address, as well, depending on the circumstances. 

A good place to start looking for definitions, pronunciations, and spellings are in hard copy reference books. On-line sources are frequently lacking. Suggestions for your personal library:

Gaelic-English English-Gaelic Dictionary: Scottish-Gaelic, by Malcolm MacLennan, ISBN 1-8736-44116

The Auld Scottish Dictionary , Lang Syne Publishers, Ltd. ISBN 1-85217-001-8

British English A to Zed , Checkmark Books, ISBN 0-8160-4239-X

Scottish Historical Documents , Donaldson, G., Neil Wilson Publishing, ISBN 1-897784-41-4

A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue , Grose, F., Dorset Press, ISBN 0-88029-766-2

Any “Learn Gael” language textbooks or tapes

Old diaries and personal journals of Celtic speakers found in antique shops and bookstores.

(**One of my most prized possessions is a tattered, 893-page, 1st edition author-autographed copy of The History of Ireland by Martin Haverty, copyright 1867. My sister-in-law found it at a country auction. I think she paid $5.00 for it  :)  and the language is fabulous!)

Suggestion #1 : Get as familiar as possible with the rhythm and speech patterns you want to emulate.

We can get some idea of the past by listening to contemporary Irish and Scots. If you can’t travel, then watch the BBC, read respected historical writers, buy some Celtic music CDs (I’ve purchased some outrageous Irish Pub CDs and some featuring Highland pipes and corals) and find a tavern/pub where Celts hang out. I found a delightful bartender, a new Irish immigrant, in a trendy Dallas restaurant a few years back. Hearing his accent, I mentioned that I wrote Celtic novels. The devil grinned and I spent the rest of the evening scribbling like mad on cocktail napkins, while a dozen thirsty patrons glared at me.

If you can travel abroad, get out of the cities and into the countryside where the accents/dialects are stronger and the pace of life slower. And don’t be afraid to approach the elderly, the lonely. They really appreciate someone who’ll listen.

To the Irish! They, with their long history of poetry and music, have a distinctive lilt, a musical rhythm to their speech, but have you noticed that they often answer a question with a question?

    An example: Mrs. O’Leary asked Tom, “What do ye think of Pat Murphy’s pig?
    Tom might respond. “And what’s not to like, what with it being so big and plump?”

I found the further west in Ireland one goes, the more pronounced the dialect. Electricity wasn’t installed along the western Atlantic coast, in the areas known as the Rings of Kerry, until 1987 (yeah, twenty-five years ago), so local speech patterns haven’t been as greatly influenced by television and radio as those in Dublin and Belfast have been.

The Scots have a very different rhythm. They employ a rolling burr and tend toward a more economical manner of speech, much of which is laced with quick-witted humor. (Long-windedness, I discovered, they hold in reserve for the pulpit, pub debates, explaining their heritage, or when announcing incomprehensible train schedules over archaic public address systems...don’t get me started.) Too, the further north you go, the more pronounced the dialect. And do keep in mind as you choose your setting, the southern regions were governed by old titled families (Hamilton, Douglas, Kennedy to name a few,) whereas the north function under the old clan system, which some might be surprised to learn was based of a matriarchal system of inheritance. What we call Auld Scot was more common in the south, Gael in the north. (Out of necessity French was also spoken by the ruling class.)

Suggestion #2: Develop a personal language Cheat Sheet or Glossary.

This will be a serious time-saver as you write. I began mine (before I had my English to Gael dictionary) in a blank telephone/address book that you can find in Hallmark stores and the like. (Hey, it was already alphabetized.) As I hear/discover new words or phrases that I like, I write them down, listing them by their English equivalents.

    Example (also see my Glossary):
        Cornflowers; Blavers
        Gold; or
        Highlander; Canteran (derogatory term a lowlander would use for a Highland marauder)
        Stranger or Outlander; Sassenach

Many of our language reference books do just the opposite. The Auld Scottish Dictionary and The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, for example, list words by the Auld Scot and then supply the modern English definitions. There are no reverse references. In other words, you have to know the word you’re looking for--which is a real pain in the tail when all you want is the Auld Scot or Middle English for “pack horse” and haven’t a clue whether it begins with an A, Q, or a Z. (It’s sumpter, btw.) The Gael-English English Gael Dictionary solves this problem, but then its just Gael, doesn’t have everything you might want/need to recall.

Since I started compiling my own glossary, life became easier. Anytime I want to install a little color—call a horse by its archaic name--I simply flip open my telephone book to HORSE and there’s an Auld Scot or Gael equivalent at my fingertips. I use the same system for keeping track of French phrases (the language of the medieval courts), clothing, and architectural details.

Suggestion #3: Purchase a current Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

It costs about $45.00 but will save you hours of aggravation. It not only list definitions and origins, but provides you with the year the word came into common use. This is important since copy editors take great pleasure in tagging words you’ve incorporated into your manuscript that weren’t in use during your novel’s period. (Inappropriate words can also drive anal-retentive contest judges a bit crazy...not a good thing.)

During the writing of A Man in a Kilt (AMIAK), my heroine was describing her early life to the hero and mentioned that she’d been an orphan. As soon as I typed the word, I stopped short. Would Duncan know the word orphan? Did I have to have Beth explain it? What was the Auld Scot equivalent? Before I wasted an hour researching, I whipped open the Merriam-Webster. And there it was...orphan: 15th century, Middle English. Ta Da! I needn’t worry, the hero would understand, and I got on with the scene.

Suggestion #4: Don’t get carried away with the bodles and “I dinna kens.”

Now that you can speak Gael or have an impressive cheat sheet of words and phrases, use them judiciously. Any written dialect, be it Brooklynese (“ Howzit goin’?”) or Scottish (“I dinna ken”) requires effort to read.  

As important as dialect is to the story’s color and tone, it’s more important that your reader (editor) cruise through the manuscript at a fairly normal reading pace. Remember; every time your reader stops/slows in order to figure out what you’re saying, you’ve jerked them out of character POV. Not  good at all.

In my time travel (AMIAK), we have a 15th-century Highlander and a contemporary heroine. I was often able to define the Auld Scot or Gael terms by simply having Beth say, “I don’t understand,” and then have the hero describe/explain. Or I could simply define by letting the reader see an item or situation through Beth’s eyes.

But my hero was a Highlander. As he spoke, I had to use/stay in dialect while keeping a tight rein on archaic phrases and terms. Whenever I thought it necessary, I did add an explanation—for reader clarification—in the very next sentence.

    Example: Duncan lunged for his claymore. (For readers who have no idea what a claymore is, I would add something like...) The six-foot-long broadsword sang as...

Suggestion #5: Keep in mind that we think as we speak. Your characters should do so in their introspections, as well, but then there is a limit as to how much dinnas, didnas, and kennas a reader/editor can take.

In AMIAK, I was able to use continuous dialect (in both dialogue and introspection) while in Duncan’s POV, only because I gave the reader a regular break whenever I shifted into my contemporary heroine’s POV. But I didn’t have that option in A Rogue in a Kilt (ARIAK), because both hero and heroine were Scots, he a Highlander, she a Lowlander. To ease the reader’s way into A Rogue and to keep up the pace, I used dialect only when writing dialogue. It felt odd, since my characters should have been thinking in the same manner they spoke, but my editor agreed that it made for a much faster/smoother read to do their introspection in contemporary English. Did I regret having to do it that way? Yes. Have readers appreciated the sacrifice? Yes...if fan mail and reviews are any indicator.  :)  

I found myself grinning when one reviewer--while giving A Rogue five stars--added, “My only criticism would be that the author should have included a glossary of medieval and Gael terms. The dialogue can make a reader wode enough to greet.”   Hmmm. Well, I did send a glossary in with the manuscript, but my editor nixed its inclusion as “pretentious and certainly not necessary.” And please note that the reviewer--despite her complaint--obviously understood the Gael, because she used it correctly in her sentence/review. Job done. Humph!

And she could have found a glossary on my website.

Suggestion #6: Take it slow.

It’s important that you integrate new words and historical detail in small doses; otherwise you overwhelm the reader or bore them to tears. When it comes to dialect, slow incorporation and occasional repetition will allow time for reader absorption. Soon they’ll be flying past Sassenach and minnie without giving the words a second thought. Now introduce something new. By the time they reach The End, they’ll feel enlightened and brilliant and think you are, as well.

Suggestion #7: Historical details—be they clothing, architectural or political—are best seen through the character’s eyes as they cope with specific situations.

It’s more entertaining for the reader if period details are slipped into the story one or two sentences at a time rather than having them dropped like lead weights about their shoulders in cumbersome six-inch paragraphs. Yes, the reader does need to know what the castle or room looks like, but do they really need to know everything all at once? Just give a quick overview as to the size, color, and coziness (or lack thereof) of a room when the character first sees it, then add some dialogue. Then describe some of the furnishings, paintings, cleanliness, etc. Put in more dialogue or action, and then add more detail by having someone touch, smell, or feel items within the room. 

If during your research should you discovered some interesting information—say, on whiskey making in the 1400s—and want to incorporate it into the manuscript, you’ve got to come up with a compelling reason for your hero/heroine learning the process. It has to be something they need to know in order to meet their goals/to move the plot forward. To have your hero/heroine simply observe/note the process of whiskey making not only smacks of “info dumping” but slows the plot. If you can’t find a reason for your hero/heroine learning about whiskey (the silk trade or whatever), then highlight and save those details on a separate file for another story. Good research is never wasted, nor is it ever a waste of time. Which brings me to TITT books.

We’ve all read TITT (Throw In The Trash) books; those historicals that are written by the seat of the author’s pantyhose, TV versions of history that obviously lack research. Don’t get me wrong. We all make mistakes—incorporate something before its time that our copy editors neglect to catch, or we skim over something we couldn’t find valid research on—but these TITT novels were written without the author so much as cracking open an atlas to check her setting’s topography.

When I first moved to Dallas, I knew nothing about the area and found a novel in the bookstore set in 1885 Dallas. Hmm, perfect. I take it home and start reading, hoping to learn something about the city’s history. On page twelve the heroine looks out the coach window and sees the mountains to her...mountains? What mountains? Dallas sits on prairie, one as flat as a table top. The closest “mountains” are really hills and are hundreds of miles away. The book hit the trash.

Suggestion #8: Use contractions.

But, you say, the Bronte sisters didn’t use contractions. True, but those gals were writing for a different audience. And Dickens and Twain did use them. Contractions are now part of our everyday vernacular. Incorporating them speeds the reader along. We think in contractions. And who are we to say that those in the past didn’t use contractions? We know they used dinna (I did not,) and t'was (it was.)

Too, we all know historicals have been losing {{{shudder}}} market share over the last few years. Is that because they’re no longer interesting? Or is it because we often make them difficult/too cumbersome to read with all our formal dialogue and introspection? Think about it.

Suggestion #9: Believe in yourself. Trust that you can deliver a compelling story no matter the setting, no matter the language.

When someone asks, “Who is your favorite author?”   Your answer should be you!