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Posted: Wed September 21st, 2011, 4:06 am
by Margaret
It's useful for novelists to keep in mind, I think, that the characters in a historical novel set more than several hundred years in the past would not have been speaking an English recognizable to modern readers. That being the case, using "England" instead of the term actually used at the time may be a reasonable choice, considering that the dialogue and narrative will not be in the actual language the people of the time used, either.

Posted: Wed September 21st, 2011, 7:51 am
by annis
I think the personal name thing is significant- if readers are at all familiar with a period a totally unlikely name will throw them out - this is a trap writers of historical romances often fall into. I groan if I see a Merovingian Frankish noblewoman called Deirdre for example (which I did a while ago!)

As far as terminology goes I think that from the readers' POV it's best to stick with the KISS principle. In this case, I'd personally go with "England" by preference. If authors get too fixated with using "authentic" terminology they risk annoying the reader and possibly spoiling the flow of the story with endless clunky explanations unless the meaning is made clear in the context.

There was an interesting discussion on this subject a while ago at the Historical Writers' Association here:
http://www.thehwa.co.uk/forum/index.php/topic,319.0.html

Posted: Thu September 22nd, 2011, 5:22 pm
by Margaret
Thanks for the link, Annis. It was an interesting discussion, and helped me clarify some things in my own mind. There's a difference between terminology which has an exact, one-word translation into English and terminology that doesn't. If an author is writing about a generic sword, why use the foreign-language (or Old English) word for it, any more than for "leg," "injury," "mud," etc.? But a pilum is a very specific type of weapon that is not simply a javelin (and certainly not a spear), but a javelin with particular properties. If a novel is centered on Roman warfare, and especially if a pilum's specific qualities figure in the plot, there would surely be an opportunity somewhere in the early part of the novel to acquaint the reader with those (the head is attached to the shaft with a narrow, fairly weak piece of connecting rod, so if a thrown pilum sticks in an enemy's shield, the connecting rod will bend, crumple or break, rendering it useless, so the enemy can't pull the pilum out and employ it as a weapon in turn). From that point on, no translation would be necessary. In a novel where the pilum is only mentioned in passing, and its specific properties are not relevant, it might well be more appropriate to translate it as "javelin" - it just depends on the nature of the novel and of the reference.

I agree about the name issue. It would totally throw me off to have a character in 16th century China be named Susan or Ralph! I would fixate on the name and not be able to focus on anything else about the novel, no matter how well written it might otherwise be.

Posted: Thu September 22nd, 2011, 7:27 pm
by SGM
The word aetheling or atheling -- which the shorter OED defines as "being of royal blood" or "heir apparent" does not really have a modern equivalent. I must look this up in the full OED because the constutional texts define it as meaning "kingworthy" albeit probably of royal blood but not necessarily of direct descent.

I think that is an example where trying to find a modern term would not be useful.

Posted: Fri September 23rd, 2011, 6:18 pm
by annis
Agreed, SGM. Sometimes there won't be a plain English substitute for a word which has a specific meaning, and that's okay.Sometimes you might want to use a word like seax for example, to describe the weapon the Saxons were so closely associated with (in fact some sources claim the name "Saxon" comes from this word). It's a matter of being discriminating and not overwhelming readers with large amounts of unfamiliar terminology which will have them referring back to a glossary or dashing for Wikipedia every two minutes to find an explanation. You want to keep the story flowing.

Posted: Fri September 23rd, 2011, 6:54 pm
by SGM
I read a piece of advice years ago which I have found very useful for supposed historical dialogue. Avoid the use of the words "get" and "got" and it does assist in giving an aged feel to the dialogue without being overloaded with unfamiliar words or sentence structure. It certainly works for "English" English. I am not sure to what extent it applies to speakers of English from other parts of the world but we are hopelessly guilty of using those two words to cover a multitude of meanings. These two words are always covered in early courses English as a foreign language.

Posted: Sat October 1st, 2011, 4:58 pm
by Shield-of-Dardania
@SGM: Just contemplating, how one would replace 'get' in 'get me some water' or 'get me a sword', for instance.

"Margaret" wrote:I agree about the name issue. It would totally throw me off to have a character in 16th century China be named Susan or Ralph! I would fixate on the name and not be able to focus on anything else about the novel, no matter how well written it might otherwise be.

As long as you don't get thrown off by a character in 16thC BC Assyria named Susannah. Well, to be more precise it was Shush-Annah then. :D

Posted: Sat October 1st, 2011, 5:39 pm
by SGM
"Shield-of-Dardania" wrote:@SGM: Just contemplating, how one would replace 'get' in 'get me some water' or 'get me a sword', for instance.


"pour", "find", "fetch", "bring".

However, I think the point is to avoid saying things like "I've got to go", "he got up" and more using phrasing like "I must leave", "he rose from his chair. Instead of "have you got a dagger?" use "have you a dagger?"

I was trying to think of an alternative to "I got caught in the rain" and off the top of my head, I can't -- or just simply "I was caught in the rain".

If you analyse the way "got" is used in modern English, I think you will find it is a sort of catch-all word which is why it is one of the first things you are expected to consider when teaching English as a Foreign Language because it can be difficult for non-native English speakers to grasp, even if they, too, find it a rather handy word when they have (got) the hang of it. As in that example, in many cases, you can just leave it out. But you need to do this with a subtle hand or you will sound stilted. I must go and have a look at Austen's dialogue again because love her or not, she was not stilted and neither was Heyer who largely followed her lead (along with Dickens). Different era from the one you are considering, I know, but I am sure you will be able to figure out how it would work for the Anglo-Saxon period.

It reminds me of when an Italian friend discovered the use of the English concept of "ish", ie latish, earlish etc etc etc such a handy thing. She was delighted with it.

If I could remember the name of the book I "got" that tip from I would tell you but, unfortunately, I really can't. I think it was called something like "How to write a historical novel"!!!

Posted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 9:19 am
by Shield-of-Dardania
"SGM" wrote:If I could remember the name of the book I "got" that tip from I would tell you but, unfortunately, I really can't. I think it was called something like "How to write a historical novel"!!!

Could it have been "How to write and sell historical fiction" by Persia Woolley? I've yet to get a hold of that book, my local bookstore doesn't have it in their stock. I think it was recommended by someone in here some time back.

Posted: Sun October 9th, 2011, 2:56 pm
by SGM
"Shield-of-Dardania" wrote:Could it have been "How to write and sell historical fiction" by Persia Woolley? I've yet to get a hold of that book, my local bookstore doesn't have it in their stock. I think it was recommended by someone in here some time back.


If it's still in print it probably isn't the one I had years and years and years ago.