Monday 15 August 2011

Choice of Language by Marie-Louise Jensen

So you're writing historical fiction. How do you recreate the past?

There are many ways you can do it. Atmosphere, descriptions, clothes, situation. all these things contribute to a sense of experiencing the past and all are important to the authenticity of the text.

One way I don't attempt to recreate the past is by language. Or at least not very much.

I've had reviews that complain that much of the vocabulary I use wasn't in use at the time the book is set. Of course it wasn't. If I were to try to use truly authentic language, it would require a vast amount of research - of the reading ancient texts in gothic script variety - and I don't think anyone would read my books. They would be too difficult to access. And I see my role as one of making the past accessible, enjoyable and easy to read about.

In the case of my Viking books, they are 'in translation' anyway, as the characters weren't speaking English, but Norse. And in the case of my Tudor novel, The Lady in the Tower, the language people spoke would have been so dramatically different to our own that we would struggle to understand it. It would be somewhere between Chaucer and Shakespeare.

As far as I'm concerned, language is the medium we use to access the story and not really a part of the authenticity of the setting. Of course, that said, it's still a minefield.

I have to be very careful not to include anachronisms, for example. It's more easily done that one might imagine, because we take our everyday items and the names we have for them so for granted that we scarcely see them. Thus my copy editor found and alerted me to a mention of trousers in my second Viking novel. Norse men wore leggings and tunics. Of course, I know perfectly well that trousers as a clothing form didn't exist until the Victorian age, but that kind of slip is so easy to make if you're cracking a joke or using a catchphrase.

And then there are the words that have changed their meanings. I've had to be really careful with these in my latest novel, which is set in the early Georgian era. In those days, a dress was a gown, a wardrobe was the clothes you owned and the piece furniture you kept them in was a closet. Skirts refered to the section of a man's coat below the waist; women had petticoats or 'coats', not skirts. I knew all these and others and had a list beside me as I wrote. Nonethless, when I did a search of the document once it was finished, I found six instances of the word 'dress' that had evaded my attention.

Getting these words right - the era-specific references - is very important to me. I think it does help to recreate the past. I did a great deal of research on costumes, furniture, food, literature and buildings, as well as lifestyle. Accuracy is valuable. Especially when readers are basing their knowledge of the era on your work. And of course modern slang is completely out of place in a book set in the past.

But if you want to tackle the old authentic language, don't come to modern historical fiction; seek out the plays, poems, stories and novels that were written back in the period you're interested in. Personally I enjoy reading many of them. But it's an altogether different experience.


Caroline Lawrence said...

A great, thought-provoking blog, Marie-Louise! I guess using period language is a matter of taste. Personally, I love putting in lots of authentic words.

In my Roman Mysteries, although I have my characters use contemporary sounding conversation because – like you – I have "translated" their language to English, I throw in lots of Latin words, especially for the concrete objects around them, e.g. stola, tablinum, forum, strigil, palla, etc. I hope my young readers will get the meaning from context. After all, they might find some of the Latin words I use easier to get than some of the English ones!

(In my earlier books I italicised the Latin words, then later abandoned that convention... but that's a whole subject for a different blog!)

But you have to find a balance. Using too many period words can overwhelm your reader and make them feel as if they are in a history lesson.

So I scatter them in lightly, like seasoning. Same thing with my Western Mysteries, where incidentally, I use the word "trowsers" because I love it so much.

As for anachronisms, I agree they should be avoided at all costs. I think of myself as a perfectionist and pride myself on weeding them out, but pride goes before falling flat on your face. Recently a German publisher told me I had two anachronisms in my new Western Mystery. The first was the use of the word "scrolled" as in "the landscape scrolled past". The second was the word "weekend".

D'oh! (As they never said in Ancient Rome or the Wild West)

adele said...

A very interesting post! I often like putting deliberate 'modern' things in, because as you say, they're in translation! EG in Ithaka, there were graffiti on the tavern wall. One of them read: POSEIDON RULES, OKAY? Which I'm sure was completely authentic...young men have scrawled slogans on walls since forever!

adele said...

Do I mean 'since forever?' Sure that's wrong somehow but too early for me to work out how and why and would always avoid saying "since time immemorial!" You know what I'm saying!

Sue Purkiss said...

Really interesting, this. I don't think there's a right or wrong - but perhaps that's me not being sufficiently rigorous! I think you just have to tread your own line, and if it works, it works. I've read books where the dialogue is archaic (but still, of course, isn't how they would actually have spoken) - and it's worked (though not very often), and I've read others where the dialogue is relatively modern, and that's worked too. You can't make it authentic, because as you say, Marie-Louise, in many cases that would make it incomprehensible - but you've somehow got to give it a tinge of authenticity.

Have just finished the first Western Mystery, Caroline, and I loved 'trowsers' too - and 'clew'! And there you are - there's no particular logic to it - it just works.

Will Coe said...

One of the greatest dilemmas of histfic. To attempt to recreate language or to accept that (a) you're not capable and (b) it could be incomprehensible.
My current book features an Elizabethan reflecting on his life four hundred years later. So arguably I can use both modern and cod-Tudor language. It's a slightly uncomfortable blend and I find myself trying to give the conversations more of an Elizabethan feel than perhaps they need. The best approach would probably be to stay neutral but unfortunately I'm not Swiss.
There are always words that you must get right. One of the climactic scenes takes place in an Elizabethan toilet and I had to school myself not to use the word 'crap', since Thomas Crapper wasn't born until 1836. Another example of how language changes is evidenced by a pivotal character being the protagonist's 'gossip' - the contemporary word for his godmother.

Sue Purkiss said...

But you could never get every word right, could you? I mean, you happened to know about the word 'gossip', Will - but how many other words are you not going to know about?

Oh dear, it's all such a minefield I feel myself seizing up before I've even started to write today. Ho hum!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Yes, I do agree. This is a tightrope we all have to walk. Using period words where possible while being accessible. I do frequently refer to my Oxford dictionary which is wonderful at giving dates of the first use of a words.
This dilemma reminds of the words of a theatre critic after the performance of a play set in 16th century. 'It's not necessary that everything is totally authentic but it is essential that the audience experiences the flavour, the atmosphere of the period.'

Beth Kemp said...

That's crazy, to complain that your language isn't authentic! I think people aren't aware of just how much our language has changed and don't realise that Vikings, for example, would be completely incomprehensible to us now. I regularly explain to students doing A Level English Language that Old English is not what Shakespeare wrote in, but a language we wouldn't understand today without specifically learning it.

Linda B-A said...

As Barbara comments, writing fiction is so often about walking a series of tightropes. And it depends on the context and the intended audience whether you need to err on the side of meticulous historical research or can get by with a bit of smoke and mirrors. You can rarely please everyone and will often outrage (or bore) someone. I loved Peter Carey's 'True History of the Kelly Gang', for instance, but I have no idea whether the astonishing voice Carey used for Ned Kelly would have been recognised as accurate by one of the outlaw's contemporaries. Does it matter? Ask different people and I'm sure you'd get different answers. Dialogue is an artificial construction in any case - if you transcribed a conversation accurately, with all the pauses and non sequiturs, you couldn't use most of it in a novel.

Anonymous said...

Barbara, that's spot on - the flavour of the era. That I do try to capture, but cautiously as many of my readers are pre-teen. And I love your Roman and Western words too, Caroline. I have some of that kind of vocabulary too. It's fun. Yes, everyone has to find what suits them. Relax, Sue!! Just write! :-)

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes,I like that... 'capture the flavour, the atmosphere of the period.'
I'm writing something set in the 1630's and my protagonist is Portuguese so it makes it more difficult. I get away with some aspects by using Portuguese swearwords and Portuguese food. But the problem with some foreign words is that they are often more acceptable in one language than in another. Most people know the word, carrack, but carrack is Spanish and if I wrote the Portuguese equilvalent for that type of ship, 'nau' I'm sure not many readers would know the word. Tricky!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

The one word that all my CPs and betas comment on in my book is "receipts" instead of "recipes." Receipts is correct for the time period (1850), and it's obvious what is meant by the context, but it seems to be just close enough to bug people.

But I caught some other things that are so ingrained in our everyday speech, like "punch line." I had it in the book for the longest time, and then got to thinking if it was anachronistic. Looked it up and it first appeared in early 20th century. Oops!

none said...

I enjoy Lindsey Davis's Falco stories, but every so often she throws in a contemporary reference, like 'Are you feeling lucky, punk?' that destroys the idea that this is ancient Rome. I know her books are intended to be humorous and maybe I'm just a grouch, but I hate those references.

That said, a friend objected to the use of 'scarpered' in my WIP because it derives from Scapa Flow. Ooops!

carola said...

I couldn't agree more. I think it is not being anachronistic if possible eg the word gossip did not exist circa 1066, but the really important thing is capturing the essence of the personality and within the historical context. Afterall we are storytellers. My favourite historical novel is in translation Dr Zhivago, possibly not written as historical but for me it may as well have been.

Caroline Lawrence said...

BuffySquirrel thanks for taking it out on Lindsey Davis and not me! I actually worked the phrase A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum into my third Roman Mystery. And somewhere Mordecai says "Live long and prosper" I think! lol.

Eve Edwards said...

The other part of this is that recorded language is formalised and when you want to do something gritty you are often turning to references written down by posh geezers with an agenda (eg Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue - a fabulous resource but he reports on the lower class world like Captain Cook on South Sea islanders). Court records might be closer but even they are in a certain context encouraging proper language. Every book is a negotiation between now and then, us and them...