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Looking for dialogue – Part 1

Posted by on March 28, 2017

What drives me to want to use dialogue in non-fiction writing project?

One year, two months and three days late I finally manage to post a blog about my efforts to find sources for real dialogue that can be used in non-fiction writing.     Action novels and deliciously trashy domestic stories have lots of dialogue that enables the author to impart information, convey emotions and add pace to their story.   Although my story is about real people the MA course I am taking is called Narrative Non-Fiction Writing; using literary and creative writing techniques to tell a non-fiction narrative.   I hope that turning some statements that the van Haecken family have given to form the few remaining legal documents will help add lightness to the relentless factual content of my non-fiction writing; showing and not telling of my story.

In the beginning of my search for dialogue I looked at fictional writers to understand how dialogue works, even if the characters and dialogue are a creation, to see how dialogue added to the readers experience.   I feel frustrated that I will never be able to hear recordings of the van Haecken family’s Flemish accent forming English words, or to discover any repeated phrasing in their speech patterns or written in family letters giving me an insight into their characters and relationships.

I admire the way Agatha Christie created of speech patterns for her famous fictional French-speaking Belgium detective Hercule Poirot’s and his very English sidekick Hastings to enhance their characters.

Poirot – ‘Ah – viola – I did not know, Hastings. …… Yes, if I mistake not, we have here a very poignant human drama.   Tell me Hastings, what do you consider Mrs Pengelley’s feelings towards her husband to be?’

Hastings – ‘Loyalty struggling with fear,’ I suggest (sic)[1]

Hastings replies in a straight forward, no nonsense 1930’s male public school / military English manner. Agatha Christie gives Poirot a flowery sprinkling of French words and syntax consistent with him being native of French-speaking Brussels and a bit of a fussy man. These two men’s characters and attitudes to life shine through their conversation.  But they are fictional characters and my protagonists are real, even if a forgotten family.

For non-fiction inspiration I read Kate Summerscale’s book, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a pacey anaylsis of a British murder of a child in 1860, full of dialogue taken from police statements and court recordings and newspapers.   Also Damn His Blood and The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore amongst other writers.    The dialogue in these narrative non-fiction stories added a human touch to difficult stories while still being totally factual.

One of the unique linguistic features in the van Haecken family’s home in South Netherlands (Belgium) history is the intermingling of the French, Flemish and Dutch languages that individually take prominence in certain regions and yet need to be understood by the majority.   Unlike Brussels in the south that had been occupied by the French at certain times in the regions history, the van Haecken home, Antwerp, is in the north close to the border of Holland which meant they continued to speak Flemish with less imposition of French in their everyday lives.

A Belgium business colleague explained that the Dutch language and Belgium’s northern Flemish was basically the same and can be understood by each other even though both Dutch and the Flemish still different, identifiable languages.   The trouble with the Flemish spoken in Antwerp is that is sounds like ‘a very bad case of Dutch Glaswegian, so difficult for anyone to understand accept other Dutch Glaswegians’[2].

The van Haecken family would have been able to speak more than just Flemish at home. They would have knowledge of French used for officialdom in Antwerp and Latin for the church, educational and artistic texts they consulted for their painting.   They probably were conversant to some degree in English too, before coming to London in 1720.   Apart from the previous centuries trading with England that gave rise to the demand for English/ Dutch / Flemish dictionaries, Antwerp had strong links with Britain cemented during the War of succession of Belgium in 1701 that saw the British, Dutch and Holy Roman Empire pitted against the French resulting in the Treaty of Utrecht signed in 1714.

Then I started to find clues – but I needed to work out how to translate them into dialogue………

Cont/ Part 2 – posted 21st April 2017

[1] Christie, Agatha Poirot’s Early Cases pub HarperCollins, London 2002 The Cornish Mystery page 63

[2] Conversation with with Roger van der Leyen in 2005 as he showed me Joseph van Aken’s Antwerp.

© Nicola Stevens 2017

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