View Full Version : Truthful Dialog?

02-14-2007, 12:15 AM
I am writing a memoir that involves myself and my father. It entails my discovery of the work he did during WWII. My question is this; How do I handle dialog that took place so long ago? Obviously I wasn't there so I don't know what was said. And for my father, this was 60 years ago and he didn't take notes (ha ha). So is it permissible/expected that if I put dialog in quotes, that the reader knows that it is obviously made up. Of course, I want to be honest with the publisher and audience, but without dialog, I find it a difficult and less effective read.

Thank you in advance,


02-14-2007, 12:38 AM
I can offer what I did in my own memoir as a possibility . . .

At the end, I wrote a "disclaimer" in which I said, The events at the beginning of this book happened almost 50 years ago, when I was a toddler. Obviously, there is no way for me to remember conversations between my parents and their friends from that period. However, I have a lifetime of experience with how they talk and act, and I believe the conversations I have reconstructed accurately reflect the spirit and content of the actual conversations.

02-14-2007, 01:52 AM
That's great! And it's something I had thought about. My father and I have talked so much about this and I have over 400 pages of letters he wrote to his folks during the war. I feel like I know, as much as any person could, what sorts of conversations might have taken place, in what context and the language used. Your advice makes a lot of sense. Thank you, Lavinia

02-14-2007, 04:15 AM
I think (or at least hope) that people understand that dialog in memoirs has to be somewhat fabricated. Who would expect you to remember every specific conversation you ever heard or had?

02-16-2007, 10:11 PM
When I read a memoir, I understand that the dialogue isn't verbatim. I just want it to capture the essence of the scene or situation, to deepen my emotional understanding of the characters.

03-22-2007, 06:57 PM
In my own memoir writing, I don't use quotation marks for dialogue. I did this because I have a journalism background and didn't feel comfortable using quotation marks.

Later, when reading other memoirs I found other authors who also handled it this way including Frank McCourt.

03-24-2007, 06:35 PM
How can one write dialogue without quotation marks?

03-24-2007, 09:04 PM
I don't mean to be snarky, but dialogue without quotation marks is called paraphrasing. It works well, in my opinion. I've been told by several beta readers it gives an intimate feel.

It works just like using quotation marks. You still have to introduce the person speaking before you actually have them speak.

As I said, Frank McCourt used this style in Teacher Man and Angela's Ashes. Dan Barry used it in his memoir too. (That is Dan, not Dave.)

Here's a bit from my own memoir, where I am relating my own words without quotation marks...

I stood up, talking to the kids and to Steve. I can’t get the latch shut, I say, I’m not going to be able to ride. I’ll just wait over here by the exit. Have fun, no, it’s OK. Stay here. I’ll just watch.

From Frank McCourt (page 151 of Teacher Man)

HIs girlfriend raises her hand.
Yes, Diane?
She talks to the class. Mr. McCourt is axin' us --
Asking, Diane.
She pauses. She takes her time. She says, See.

And there you have it, dialogue without quotation marks.

03-26-2007, 01:11 AM
I find dialogue without quotations marks to be confusing, but that might just be me. And if you're writing that way, what happens if you're sure of what someone said? Do you use quotes for those things?

06-11-2007, 05:54 AM
Memoirs don't have to be exact. They don't even have to be true. They depict past events as you or someone remembers them, and we all know how memories can be. Okay, they should be mostly true.

06-11-2007, 06:05 AM
In RISING FROM THE ASHES, I used what I could remember as truthfully as possible. Then I filled in some gaps with what family members had told me. I also did some "composite scenes" for dramatic effect because my memory is not linear. Finally, to fill in the gaps, I just made stuff up. And that has to include all the dialog because I can remember none of it. I memorized my brother's suicide note without trying, but the rest is total BS.

My publisher put a disclaimer in the front calling it a work of fiction but then sold it in the nonfiction section. And many reviewers and emailers commented, "It says it's fiction but I don't believe it. It's too real."

So there's one case. I agree with whoever said we don't expect the dialog in memoirs bios etc to actually be verbatim. I also agree with anybody who says to look at Frank McCourt's writing for technical pointers. Wow.

Keep on writing!

06-11-2007, 02:30 PM
I find dialogue without quotations marks to be confusing, but that might just be me. And if you're writing that way, what happens if you're sure of what someone said? Do you use quotes for those things?

I don't trust myself to quote people correctly. My mother called me to dinner for 18 plus years by saying "Supper's Ready." When I wrote a scene where she did so, I wrote "Dinner's ready." I later went back and edited it (after confirmation from my siblings) to "supper's ready" and left the quote marks off.

My decision to not use quotation marks is very rooted in my journalism background.

There have been a few times where I did know exactly what was said because it was from written material, just happened, etc. I still didn't use quotation marks. If it was written material (for instance, a letter from my dad), I used italics.