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Words out of time

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writerinthenorth
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Words out of time

Post by writerinthenorth » Fri November 19th, 2010, 4:32 pm

Browsing through the letters page of next week’s Radio Times I see that some correspondents are objecting to the anachronistic language in the recent series of the period drama Downton Abbey. Examples quoted include ‘allergy’, ‘hung parliament’ and colloquial expressions such as ‘Papa will hit the roof’, ‘The suspense is killing me’ and ‘just so I know’.

I guess these are accidental, unlike the deliberately modern style affected by youth-oriented period stuff like Robin Hood and Merlin. Should we get worked about it? I ask, having spent over two years on the ms of Mr Stephenson’s Regret, my novel about the Northumbrian railway pioneers. Leaving the research aside, I took longer on the actual writing process than I have done on previous work, not least because of my constant etymological checking; I wanted to avoid being faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian, but at the same time I challenged myself to use only vocabulary that would have been available at the time.

There is, of course, no sense in being a stickler for linguistic accuracy if by doing so you put your narrative in a strait-jacket or make your dialogue seem stilted even allowing for the restrained conventions of the time. Perhaps the risk is greater in these days when the classics are generally accessed through the modernising medium of television rather than through the words of the original novelists. The nineteenth century seems and perhaps sounds a long way away for many of today’s audience. For the contemporary author writing in a historical context, there is a delicate balance to be found between past and present, and it’s hard not to fall between the cracks.

I have reproduced the first few pages of my draft Stephenson novel at my blog writerinthenorth. Just hit the Show/hide button at the foot of the latest post ‘Words out of time’. I would welcome any feedback on the sample.

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Alisha Marie Klapheke
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Post by Alisha Marie Klapheke » Tue December 7th, 2010, 4:46 am

I am struggling with modernity in my ms. One agent and one editor told me it was a bit too modern (it is set in 13th c England). I am attempting to do what you mentioned above -- keeping the narrative away from fakey medieval silliness, avoiding modern metaphors and idioms, but they still say "too modern." Do you have any advice? I want my hist fic to be fresh and readable to modern women. I don't like to read, as you mentioned, stilted language. In fact, there have been times when I've absolutely suffered through a hf just because I love the history and the story. I want my tale to be like YA or chick lit but for adult women. Am I crazy?

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wendy
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Post by wendy » Tue December 7th, 2010, 2:52 pm

I experienced the opposite problem - a well known US agent told me my 17th century Lancashire witches dialect could not be understood by a 21st century American audience and needed to be modernized! She actually gave me some sound advice and said that the most effective (not necessarily authentic) writers were able to use the odd word or phrase that gave the flavor of the period, without getting bogged down in complete technical accuracy. It seems to work!

writerinthenorth
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The language of history

Post by writerinthenorth » Tue December 7th, 2010, 7:46 pm

I'm sure Wendy is right. Suggesting the period by judiciously selected vocabulary must be the right approach. I would add, avoid obvious anachronisms both in vocabulary and content, unless you do it consciously throughout, when you are in cahoots with the reader about what you are doing, which is an approach many post-modern writers adopt.

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Libby
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Post by Libby » Tue December 7th, 2010, 8:19 pm

I think that writing historical fiction that is set in a time after the use of spoken English became widespread is more difficult in relation to vocabulary. Then you do have to be aware of words and phrases that may not have been current at the time. Though if you wanted to be entirely accurate in the early days of English you might have to write in 'middle English' - the language of Chaucer which not many people would readily understand.

Before that, people would have been speaking Norman French and that is another language that it would be pointless to replicate, which is why I kept the language in mine 'modern' in the sense that I avoided any pseudo medieval language - forsoothe, gadzooks, etc. As far as I was concerned I was translating what the characters were saying, so what I aimed for was language that was neither old fashioned nor present day, but neutral.

'writerinthenorth' - I think you do need to be aware of the language used at the time, especially in dialogue.

Alisha - your language may not be too modern at all. It may that the editor doesn't understand that your characters didn't actually speak English at all!

wendy - I agree with the advice that dialect can make a book very difficult to read and that a few well chosen words here and there can give the necessary flavour. If you need any advice about Lancashire dialect you can pm me.
By Loyalty Bound - the story of the mistress of Richard III.

http://www.elizabethashworth.com

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Tue December 7th, 2010, 8:26 pm

[quote=""Libby""]
Before that, people would have been speaking Norman French and that is another language that it would be pointless to replicate


It may that the editor doesn't understand that your characters didn't actually speak English at all!

[/quote] Wasn't it actually only the ruling and military classes in England who spoke Norman French? Didn't the common people continue to speak Old English (aka "Anglo-Saxon")? I realize this is just a technical question, since in terms of writing for the modern reader, either language would be equally foreign and would require "translation."

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Libby
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Post by Libby » Tue December 7th, 2010, 8:34 pm

Yes, you're right Michy. thank you for the clarification. I was thinking in terms of writing about the nobles rather than the peasants! And if you go back to pre-Norman times then everyone would have spoken an early form of 'English', As you say, either language would have been 'foreign' to modern ears so trying to make it authentic is difficult. In fact the only language that seems to last is Latin.
By Loyalty Bound - the story of the mistress of Richard III.

http://www.elizabethashworth.com

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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Tue December 7th, 2010, 9:11 pm

I just write in standard modern English and use the occasional technical term and phrase to give a flavour. I don't haunt the etymology dictionary but I generally try to avoid putting in a) gadzookery and b) modern slang that is either going to pull the reader out of the story or date very quickly.
As Libby says, the writer is translating what they would have said. As long as the writer's research is solid, particularly with references to attitudes of the time, then just allow the words to flow and keep a judicious eye on the proceedings. :)
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

www.elizabethchadwick.com

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Tue December 7th, 2010, 9:31 pm

Gadzookery! :D what a great term, EC, I'm going to borrow it.

I sometimes get a comment (okay, mostly from my 95-year-old English-degree mom, who is a serious language snob) about my word choices. I have to keep reminding her that my characters were speaking Spanish, or Arabic, or Quechua, never English.

My biggest problem is when I have upper-class and lower-class characters, or characters speaking languages that they do not know well. For the latter, I twist the phrases a bit and mess up the verb tenses, or leave out articles. Doing lower-class speech is harder-- as in an Inca Noble speaking to a peasant. You can't put in English-language lower-class colloquialisms without pulling the reader out of the time/place, so I make do with keeping the language simple, crude and/or repetitive.

And of course, the occasional foreign term helps, but I ALWAYS try to use weird words in a context such that the meaning will be obvious, as in: "He spread the strings of the quipu and puzzled out the message encoded in the knots."

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Alisha Marie Klapheke
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Post by Alisha Marie Klapheke » Wed December 8th, 2010, 4:58 am

Thank you all so much. I'm trying to keep myself from doing cartwheels here. I just love you people.

I agree with what everyone here is saying and I believe I have done this in my writing. I really think my problem is that I use too many Americanisms and I am ignorant of them.(What do you mean? I don't have an accent. Ha ha.) Are there any modernisms about which you more experienced writers/readers could specifically warn me?

And one more question: Can my 13th c characters roll their eyes? I know. That's bad, right? I wish they could. I really do. The eye roll says so much.

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