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Thread: 1920s dialogue

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    Holed up in the revision cave Niiicola's Avatar
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    1920s dialogue

    Can anybody recommend books or movies set in the 1920s to get an ear for dialogue? My WIP is set in America in the mid-20s and has a range of characters from different social backgrounds. I'm reading a lot of Fitzgerald, and I have some Hemingway and Woolf lined up. I also know of some websites with 20s slang, but I'm kind of hoping to pick up the cadence and words more organically.

    Many thanks!

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    I'm behaving. SuperModerator alleycat's Avatar
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    Maybull the Bulldog StephanieFox's Avatar
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    My grandmother lived in NYC in the 1920s and spoke English with a Yiddish accent. My grandfather spoke English with a Swedish accent. Both my parents were kids then but I never notice any difference with their language styles or cadence than I had.


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    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    If you can, it might be helpful to get hold of some of the pulp fiction magazines from the years you're interested in and just read them cover-to-cover. Aim for a variety of genres to get a good feel for it.

    Wikipedia says, "At their peak of popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, the most successful pulps could sell up to one million copies per issue. The most successful pulp magazines were Argosy, Adventure, Blue Book and Short Stories described by some pulp historians as "The Big Four".[4] Among the best-known other titles of this period were Amazing Stories, Black Mask, Dime Detective, Flying Aces, Horror Stories, Love Story Magazine, Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Unknown, Weird Tales and Western Story Magazine."

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    practical experience, FTW Al Stevens's Avatar
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    Read the short stories of Damon Runyon. The show, "Guys and Dolls" is based on those characters.

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    I agree. Runyon would be more sueful than Fitzgerald or Hemingway. If you have criminals, the Dashiell Hammett would be good. Movies from the 1930's probably would be more useful than ones from the 1920's. If you're looking for slang, then anything into the 1960's would help; slang didn't change a lot until drugs became more common.

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    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    You might try watching a few Marx Brothers movies. The dialog is exaggerated for comic effect, so it's not like you would want to imitate it exactly. But the contrast between Margaret Dumont's middle-class, Mid-Atlantic formality and Groucho's street-smart, Brooklyn wise-cracking is a pretty common theme that reflects on language and class in that era.
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    Don't let your deal go down, Dave Hardy's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Snick View Post
    I agree. Runyon would be more sueful than Fitzgerald or Hemingway. If you have criminals, the Dashiell Hammett would be good. Movies from the 1930's probably would be more useful than ones from the 1920's. If you're looking for slang, then anything into the 1960's would help; slang didn't change a lot until drugs became more common.
    Raymond Chandler singled out Hammett for really having an ear for common speech, and the ability to turn it into readable dialog. Chandler is a bit more stylized in his wise-guy banter (it became a staple of fictional dialog in the '40s), so pastiching his dialog can end up sounding corny. Looking at pulp writers along with writers from the slicks can give you some idea of variations in language.
    In the words of Hasan i-Sabah: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

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    Don't Eat the Grot! August Talok's Avatar
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    It might sound silly - but there is a comedy that might help. They purposely through in as much 1920's speak as they could.

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    Sophipygian AW Moderator Alessandra Kelley's Avatar
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    Do remember that a lot of fictional language was softened. Afaik, people swore as much back then as they do now, but pulps and books tended to present cusswords as phrases like "you no-good skunk" or "blast you" or the like.

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    practical experience, FTW Lil's Avatar
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    Also remember that a lot of the language/slang used in pulp fiction or tough guy stories is not anything that would be said by most people. After all, most people today do not talk like the characters on the Sopranos.

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    The mean one AW Moderator Cath's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Niiicola View Post
    My WIP is set in America in the mid-20s and has a range of characters from different social backgrounds. I'm reading a lot of Fitzgerald, and I have some Hemingway and Woolf lined up.
    Do you want characters from different countries also? Fitzgerald and Hemmingway are America, Woolf is English. They're different, even now when we have immediate global interaction. Language is localised and colloquial. Where are your characters from? Maybe we can suggest some specifics that would help.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alessandra Kelley View Post
    Do remember that a lot of fictional language was softened. Afaik, people swore as much back then as they do now, but pulps and books tended to present cusswords as phrases like "you no-good skunk" or "blast you" or the like.
    While there was some softening, people did not use as much foul language then as now, and there was a tendency to "soften" the language when women were present. Also, "fuck" was much rarer, and seldom used by men in the presence of women.
    If we were to go back to the 1800's, then words like "blast" were in common use and as foul as most people got in ordinary speech. There was more foul language among the criminal classes, but they were, and still are, only a small part of the population.
    Last edited by Snick; 08-25-2012 at 11:13 PM.

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    Regionalism in dialogue was as important then as it is now, and probably more so, as people did not travel as far or freely as they do today.

    Faulkner, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, James T. Farrell, Scott Fitzgerald are all examples of writers who tended to set their stories in specific locales, and reflect the dialogue of those places.

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    Holed up in the revision cave Niiicola's Avatar
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    Thanks for all the info, everybody!

    For the most part, the characters are based in NYC, but they're originally from all over the place, as New Yorkers tend to be. I'd assume that they'd tend to pick up NY slang rather quickly as part of the assimilation process, but I love the idea of playing with regional speech depending on where they're from. Yikes, even more research!

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