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Language

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Rowan
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Interest in HF: I love history, but it's boring in school. Historical fiction brings it alive for me.
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Language

Post by Rowan » Wed February 13th, 2013, 8:33 pm

How important is language in terms of writing historical fiction? Do you think people are okay with using modern language in writing as long as you're not anachronistic?

Would you be interested in a book whose author has tried to write in the "language of the period" solely?

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Justin Swanton
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Post by Justin Swanton » Thu February 14th, 2013, 6:00 am

Thing is, you can't actually write a novel in the language of the period as that would make the book incomprehensible, unless your novel is in a fairly recent past.

My approach is that there are several forms of contemporary English that one can use for a novel: 'neutral' English - the correct classroom form, contemporary slang English, what people actually talk to each other, and dialect English which includes many literary stereotypes.

When writing a historical novel set in the distant past, it's probably safer to go for neutral English with perhaps some stereotype dialect English to denote the language of the different classes. For the more recent past I would be careful about dialects unless you actually have personal experience of them. How would an educated Londoner in the 18th century actually speak? Maybe just use neutral English in a case like that.

An any case one needs to avoid contemporary slang English like the plague. Using neutral English for conversation in a book is not artificial, surprisingly enough. Keep in mind that literary conversation is not the same thing as the actual spoken word. In real conversations people repeat themselves a lot (read any transcribed interview), which does not work when put down on paper.
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Thu February 14th, 2013, 6:03 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Lisa
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Favourite HF book: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
Preferred HF: Any time period/location. Timeslip, usually prefer female POV. Also love Gothic melodrama.
Location: Northeast Scotland

Post by Lisa » Thu February 14th, 2013, 2:08 pm

I agree with Justin - I think that 'neutral English' is really the only way to go here. Contemporary slang and anachronisms will of course be jarring, and even if regional dialect is limited to occasional words or phrases, there's a good chance the reader won't understand them.

As a reader I don't expect historical fiction to be written in a tone that attempts to emulate the language of the period - what makes it authentic for me is the accurate description of period details and the characters' mindsets. This means there will always be nouns cropping up that are rarely used nowadays (e.g. noble titles, items of clothing), but looking these up is all part of the fun :)

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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) » Thu February 14th, 2013, 2:41 pm

I had to figure this out early on, as none of my novels are set in English-speaking places! And from my scan of Chaucer, that included England itself, pre-Shakespeare.
I do have one Tudor WIP, and I spend a lot of time at Faire telling stories in Shakespeare/King James Bible speak, but I wouldn't dream of writing that way. I'd lose most of my readers.

Think of it this way: as a storyteller, you are a translator, not just of language, but of emotion. A period word or two for flavor, set in a context where the meaning is in-your-face obvious, repeated enough for the reader to remember it--that's usually enough.

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Rowan
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Post by Rowan » Thu February 14th, 2013, 3:04 pm

Thanks for your responses. I think I'm of a mind with all of you, but yesterday I discovered a writer who has, up to now, written non-fiction and he's decided to venture into historical fiction. I read about him on medievalists.net and if you saw my other thread on Unbound books, that's where he's publishing.

This is a quote from the story about his book:

The Wake is set in the three years after the Norman invasion of 1066, an event which – despite its superficial familiarity – Kingsnorth believes was the most traumatic and significant in English history. It tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Hung carefully on the known historical facts, The Wake restores to vivid life the almost forgotten, decade-long war of underground resistance which spread across England after 1066.

To do this, Kingsnorth had to invent a new language: a middle ground between the Old English that would have been spoken by these characters and the English we speak today. He says, ‘I gradually began to see why: the language that we speak is so utterly specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. In order to have any chance of this novel working, I realised I needed to imagine myself into the sheer strangeness of the past. I couldn’t do that by putting 21st century language into the mouths of eleventh-century people.’
I interpreted this to mean something similar to what everyone has stated here, however when I followed the link provided to his listing on Unbound, I found an excerpt that was totally not what I expected. It's written as though the author was alive in 1066-69, or at least imagines himself to have been there. I was interested in the possibilities of this book until I read the excerpt.

If you want to read an excerpt, you can find it
here.

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Lisa
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Favourite HF book: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
Preferred HF: Any time period/location. Timeslip, usually prefer female POV. Also love Gothic melodrama.
Location: Northeast Scotland

Post by Lisa » Thu February 14th, 2013, 4:43 pm

From the excerpt I can say that's not for me. I wouldn't read that in my leisure time - I read for a living (editor) and that's just too much work!

However, I do like the effect, and I suppose if one persevered it might become easier to read. I was sceptical about the 'half-way' approach with the language, but it will set the reader thinking about the narrator differently, in the way the author wants, I suppose.

It must have been a lot of work - I hope he finds plenty of willing readers to enjoy it!

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Madeleine
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Post by Madeleine » Thu February 14th, 2013, 4:48 pm

I read a book recently which was partly written in period-speak (it was a dual time-frame) and I found it was practically incomprehensible. The writer must have spent a fantastic amount of time and effort, but I'm afraid it was lost on me. And how many people say they don't "do" Shakespeare, because of the way it's written? I think serious readers or historical experts would perhaps persevere, but the majority of readers wouldn't.
Currently reading "The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper & "The Christmas Egg" by Mary Kelly

annis
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Post by annis » Thu February 14th, 2013, 6:36 pm

Posted by Rowan
How important is language in terms of writing historical fiction? Do you think people are okay with using modern language in writing as long as you're not anachronistic?

Would you be interested in a book whose author has tried to write in the "language of the period" solely?
Earlier writers of HF persisted in writing dialogue in a god-awful quasi-period style which is often stilted and very hard to read now and doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the way their protagonists would have really spoken anyway. I did once read a whole modern novel written in a reasonable attempt to recreate Middle English and it was interesting but tedious. Because dialogue is so incredibly important in engaging reader with literary character, I'd say it could be commercial suicide to take the approach taken by the author you mention, even though he may have found it an enjoyable intellectual exercise. Capturing a period sensibilty is much more important than trying to recreate the actual language of the period in which your novel is set.

Rosemary Sutcliff, who excelled in creating period-feel dialogue without resorting to period-speak, had this to say about language in historical fiction:

"Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date . . . saw nothing ludicrous in 'Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.' Josephine Tey called this 'Writing forsoothly.' A slightly different variant is known in the trade as 'Gadzookery.' Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time. But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, 'Shut ip, Dickie, you're getting too big for your boots.' Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both Gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly 'made-up' form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: 'I beg your pardon' changed into 'I ask your pardon.'"
Last edited by annis on Thu February 14th, 2013, 6:40 pm, edited 4 times in total.

User avatar
MLE (Emily Cotton)
Bibliomaniac
Posts: 3557
Joined: August 2008
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) » Thu February 14th, 2013, 7:45 pm

Writers seem to forget that a story is for the reader, not the characters. That's why oral storytelling keeps me anchored in that very important fact: try telling a story where the audience walks away!

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Rowan
Bibliophile
Posts: 1462
Joined: August 2008
Interest in HF: I love history, but it's boring in school. Historical fiction brings it alive for me.
Preferred HF: Iron-Age Britain, Roman Britain, Medieval Britain
Location: New Orleans
Contact:

Post by Rowan » Thu February 14th, 2013, 9:13 pm

I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt turned off by the prose. Obviously some people find that it will be worthwhile to read because the Unbound site indicates he's over the cost of publishing by 8%.

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