I was more amused than outraged when those words "As if!" were used as a complete sentence by one of the characters in Downton Abbey. For me it was just another of the many idiosyncrasies of a series which takes a look at a supposed aspect of life at the beginning of the previous century. But when I heard the same sentence uttered during Spielberg's version of War Horse I was startled. Did I mishear? And if not, am I wrong in thinking this to be an anachronism?
Historical novels are prone to anachronisms. I would hesitate to take anyone to task about this and not just because I'm sure a careful combing of my own books might reveal embarrassing glitches. I respect my fellow writers who work extremely hard and labour over their craft, also writers of historical fiction have the particular hurdle of 'Time Truth' However I'll make an exception and share my recent "find" in a School Book Fair of a story that has Queen Elizabeth the first cycling ( yes, on a bike!) between Hampton Court and the Palace of Westminster. There's also the children's TV series that has Mona Lisa, disguised as a boy, working as an apprentice painter in the same studio as a teenage Leonardo da Vinci, and hanging out with a streetwise kid named Mac ( that's Machiavelli to you and me). I know it was a deliberate decision to 'modernise' the action but I find this quite painful to watch. Does it raise valid questions? I mean, how do we know that Leonardo and Lisa didn't run around Florence in ( the equivalent of) trainers and high-five each other? Is it as out of place as having a character curtsey before the 16th Century when this form of obeisance evolved at the French Court? I do believe the rightly revered Rosemary Sutcliffe did.
However its the language more than anything that intrigues me. The thrill, the fascination, the power of word, the literal meaning coupled with emotional resonance, the freight that a phrase can carry. A writer can lift the language above the ordinary, can corral emotions, create the illuminating shaft of light to send into a dark corner of the mind.
As Solomon, the dyslexic boy in Whispers in the Graveyard thinks:
Words, words are different.
I heard someone reading poetry on the radio once. The phrases stayed inside me for weeks, exploding in my head, thrusting and twisting in my gut.
I'm very disappointed that Garrow's Law has been axed from television as I loved the dialogue and the diction. So caught up in the sweep of the story and the skill of the acting I was unaware of any inappropriate words.
Ah indeed! Choosing the words is the challenge.
I discovered 'chaffering' in a 15th Century journal so I knew it was fine to have that in The Medici Seal. But.... To maffick or not to maffick? That was the question. I can't recall where I found this nugget but I knew I had to have it. It's such a decisive sounding word and I thought to deploy it to inject a bit of spit into a variety of situations. A quick dictionary looksee revealed that maffick is derived from Mafeking, the South African town besieged during the Boer War of the 19th / 20th Century and so I felt I couldn't use it in a book set in the Middle Ages. At home I whined so much about having to take it out that my family began to incorporate it into anything said withing my earshot, as in,
"Don't maffick about. Hurry up and eat your dinner"
"Someone's mafficked my tennis racquet."
When they were young, my children, like many others, often made up words. A day could be 'bilby' or 'gilp' vis. dull / overcast. I believed that one of my offspring had invented 'splendiferous' until I came across it in a thesauarus. I'm still not sure about 'horipillation'. It's coming up red on the Spell Check, but then quite a few of the Scots words I use do too. like 'dreich' (misty, drizzling day) but, strangely, not 'fleer'. In the present work-in-progress I have resisted the temptation to write that Mary, Queen of Scots, is surrounded by a fanfaronade of niddering mulligrubs, although her fate might have been less tragic had she realised this. 'Chortle' was coined by Lewis Carroll in the late 19th century, meaning something between a laugh and a chuckle. Can you Chorltle with a Wortle? Sorry. Wortle is definitely one of the children's contributions - haven't worked out yet whether it's a noun, verb, or adjective. Obviously people were chortling prior to the late 19th but is it OK for me to use that word to describe what they were doing?
Do all writers of historical fiction check the etymology of every word they use?
Theresa Breslin's latest historical novel PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION won the teenage section of The Historical Association, Young Quills Award, is shortlisted for the Scottish Children's Book Award, and was voted favourite book by the young people shadowing the Carnegie Medal Book Awards. WHISPERS IN THE GRAVEYARD won the Carnegie Medal.