Most writers like to snoop and eavesdrop – that's how you pick up juicy snippets and tidbits to use in your stories. And when writing dialogue, there's nothing like listening to real conversations to tune your ear and discover interesting phrases. Whenever you’re on a bus or train journey, always carry your notebook so you can note down fascinating conversations.
But when you're writing about places far away or long ago, how can you hear what people sounded like? Fortunately, there are collections online where you can listen to recordings of people from all over the world and from as far back as the 1860s.
We've put together this handy list of places on the internet where you can hear real people talking to help you make your dialogue as authentic as possible. Be warned, once you start investigating these sites, you will be hooked!
National Library of Australia
A great place to start is the National Library of Australia's audio archive which is part of Trove. You may already use Trove for their amazing collection of digitised newspapers and books, all available online for free. As it says on their website, Trove “is a single point of entry to a treasure trove of artefacts, curiosities and stories from Australia’s cultural, community and research institutions.”
Trove also has thousands of audio recordings, many of which are available online for free. For instance, this is an audio recording of Sidney Nolan talking about how he started painting, which was recorded in 1962.
And it's not just dialogue and conversation – Trove also has music, like these recordings of Australians singing folk songs, recorded in the 1950s.
To start searching, go to the audio search page and be sure to use the filters down the side to help you narrow down your results.
The British Library
The Oral History section especially has thousands of interesting audio clips, and not just of famous people. One clip is of Chinese immigrant Wing Yip, who talks about the first Chinese restaurants in the UK. Not only is it fascinating from a historical perspective, but you can also hear the nuances of his British Chinese accent.
For more accents, they also have a section on accents and dialects. You can hear a variety of speakers reading Mr Tickle – yes, from the Mr Men series – so don't miss out on your chance to hear Mr Tickle read with a Kazakh accent.
International Dialects of English Archive
If you've got a particular interest in accents, then check out the International Dialects of English Archive. According to their website, it is an “archive of primary-source recordings of English-language dialects and accents as heard around the world.” Speakers frequently recount an interesting anecdote from their life so, again, it's not just about the sound but the stories too.
Videos and radio
Of course, YouTube is a great place to look for people speaking in different languages, dialects, accents, and situations. A search for “people speaking 1940s” offers a variety of clips from movies, public service announcements, and voice experts.
Another excellent place to find historical videos is the British Pathe, which is also home to the Reuters News Agency archive. This is less useful for dialogue, because the voices are usually news-readers, but they do sometimes interview local people. They also have a fascinating YouTube page which is a great place to waste time while pretending that you're working, i.e. researching.
And to really immerse yourself in the dialogue of your characters or setting, simply tune in to a radio station from that area. The website Radio Garden lets you explore the world's radio stations on a beautiful interactive map. So whether your characters are based in Essex or Estonia, you can listen in to how people are talking there right now – as well as what music they might be listening to!
Oral history searches
If you have a specific location you're interested in, simply search the internet for ‘oral history' and the location. For example, searching for “oral history New York” brings up the New York Public Library's oral history project. You can do the same for many locations around the world. Oral history archives are extraordinary repositories of stories, told by real people in their own voices.
If you’re truly looking to hone your dialogue-writing skills, you can’t go past our online, on-demand course Fiction Essentials: Dialogue. Dip in and out of the comprehensive modules and exercises at your leisure while you’re working on your novel or short stories. Brush up on your art of conversation today!