Setting dialogue in time and place

When I do writing workshops with students, one of the topics I cover is how to set stories in a particular time and place. Time is worth some serious consideration because it determines the way your characters think, act, dress, speak, drive, communicate and much, much more. In researching Game as Ned, I (helped by my wife) tracked down a speech expert to get a seal of authenticity on some of the phrases I wanted my characters to use in a 1970s rural Australian setting. In other words, would people really speak this way, in this time and place?

Which brings me to one of my favourite TV characters, Life on Mars‘ dodgy detective Gene Hunt. Detective Chief Inspector Hunt is offensive and flawed in too many ways to list. He’s also loyal and indomitable … and he gets all the best lines.

The BBC version of Life on Mars is set in London in the ’70s. The scriptwriters delight in giving Hunt and his colleagues cracking dialogue that would be unthinkable in any contemporary cop show. Hunt’s dialogue is very much a product of his times, contrasting him with his sensitive, time-travelling off-sider DI Sam Tyler. (The new series Ashes to Ashes is set in the ’80s so it will be interesting whether 10 years have softened or enlightened Hunt in any way.)

Here are some ’70s Hunt-isms, hunted down online:

Hunt to a gaggle of kids staring at his beloved Ford Cortina: “Anything happens to this motor, I’ll come ’round your houses and stomp on all your toys. Got it? Good kids.”

– Hunt bantering with Tyler: Hunt: “I think you forgot who you’re talking to.” Tyler: “An overweight, over the hill, tobacco-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.” Hunt: “You make that sound like a bad thing.”

– Tyler: “I think we need to explore whether this attempted murder was a hate crime.” Hunt: “What as opposed to one of those I-really-really-like-you sort of murders?”

– Hunt: “If a villain farts in this city, our snout should be able to find the arse responsible.”

– Tyler speaking about an injured colleague: “He shouldn’t be here. He’s got PTSD.” Hunt: “The man’s a bloody hero and you’re accusing him of having the clap?”

– Hunt: “I want this man caught before he kills again. This is my city and it will be a safe place for my wife and my mum to walk around, is that understood?” Others: “Yes, guv.” Hunt: “Right, find out who that dead woman was, find out who killed her. Do it now.” (Checks his watch) Hunt: “Hold on, hold on. Do it tomorrow morning first thing. Beer o’clock, gentlemen.”

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