Whether an author is writing historical fiction or contemporary fiction, the most important element of any story is dialogue. And in order to make characters sound believable they should be true to their background and locale. But how much is too much when it comes to writing dialect? And, when it comes to historical fiction, how can we possibly know how people truly spoke in their daily lives hundreds of years ago, especially when they hailed from regions unfamiliar to the modern reader?
There are, of course, many documents that have survived the centuries and give us a clue as to how people spoke. Yet we all know just from our own daily experiences, we speak much differently than we write. I know I do, at least. There's no reason to believe that isn't true of our ancestors as well.
While writing my historical novels, I've tried to intersperse dialect, not as a gimmick but as a useful tool to make each character unique in how they "sound" to the reader's ear. A particular challenge was the slave dialect in The Driver's Wife. Modern-day readers are very familiar with the slave dialect portrayed in many books, including Gone With the Wind, as well as on the silver screen. However, these portrayals are from a later period in history than that of The Driver's Wife.
I found little clues about how slaves sounded during the late 17th century in Colonial America, specifically the region of Charles Town (modern-day Charleston, South Carolina). The Gullah language (a hybrid of West Coast African languages and English), well known in coastal Georgia and South Carolina even today, had yet to be established. So I decided to use simple logic in creating the language spoken by my character Isabelle and her fellow slaves at Leighlin Plantation.
Unlike Antebellum America, slaves had not been in the province of South Carolina for generations at the time of my story, so they had not been exposed to English-speaking masters and overseers for as long as later generations of enslaved peoples. Slaves in Carolina at the time of my story would have been a mixture of slaves brought to the province from sugar plantations in places like Barbados, from which many of the Charles Town planters hailed, and Africans brought directly from their homeland overseas. The latter category would have brought with them a variety of languages from Africa, so a plantation's slave population would have consisted of men and women who very easily did not understand their fellow slaves any better than they understood their English overseer or master. So how did they communicate?
As with any group of people from different regions forced to live together, both black and white, communication, I believe, was continually evolving. Slaves from different countries in West Africa no doubt found some common linguistic ground, and all would have learned some English by osmosis from their captors.
When it came to my character Isabelle, her speech is more refined than my field hand characters due to the fact that she had been a house servant before coming to Leighlin Plantation, and thus she was more in contact with whites than her own people. The field hands are a blend of first generation slaves, who spoke next to no English, and those transplanted from other colonies, such as Barbados or the Bahamas.
In the dialect choices I made I needed the characters to not only be understandable to the reader but I also wanted to avoid annoying the reader by forcing them to constantly navigate unfamiliar cadences and syntax. So I decided to give the characters merely a flavor of dialect, so they sounded different than the white characters but not so incomprehensible that it would turn the reader off. At least that was my hope. Only my readers can decide if I succeeded or not.