Authentic Language in Historical Fiction

Syriac_Sertâ_book_scriptStriving for authentic language is all very well when you are writing historical fiction that takes place in an English-speaking context – even going as far back as Shakespearean times.

But, what if you are writing about a time from which we have very few written sources, the ones available are in four or five languages, and each of those would require a PhD to be readable?

Written resources for my story’s exact period are few – there was too much upheaval for scribes to be writing it all down. I am thus limited to extant documents from the prior century, a few in my target century, and the rest written one hundred or more years on. And, they have to be available in English translation – because my pre-Quranic Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Latin and Greek are a bit rusty.

The other difficulty is: people don’t always speak the way they write. Does anyone really think the Elizabethans spoke in iambic pentameter? Formal Roman speeches probably did reflect written rhetoric because both were highly valued and intertwined skills. But, did they speak that way to their children? What about the speech of commoners? Soldiers? How do we know? We mostly don’t know.

(I once had a critique group member insist that people during my time period would not have used nicknames in dialogue. REALLY???  — Sorry, that’s still a sore spot.)

 

However, any good translation attempts to capture the style and syntax of the original. Since a direct translation of my period’s speech is impossible, and would be unreadable, my fiction efforts will focus on capturing hints of the cultural hierarchy in language, and some sense of rhetorical style, vocabulary, expressions and worldview. I will have to trust that my translated resources retain something of the original flavor.

But what I really want to know is: what English term do we use for “gunwale” when writing about pre-gunpowder times? Seriously, I can’t find a good substitute. I’ve seen other pre-gun era books use the term. If those writers even considered it, they probably decided to use “gunwale” rather than have to repeat over and over “that topmost strake of the boat”. I have found “saxboard” but no good etymology for the word – and would my readers know what it means? It sounds northern to me. I’m sure there was a term for the topmost strake in Aramaic, but, whatever it was, it would be meaningless to me and there seems to be no good English substitute.

You can see what I’m up against.

Pride of Language in Historical Fiction

 

 

I’ve recently read several blog articles about language use in historical fiction. These writers take great pride in their efforts to use vocabulary, sayings and syntax to establish their story’s manners, mores and customs. They delve into novels, letters, news articles, chronicles, public records, anything they can find from the period in order to provide an aural immersion experience for the reader.

Roland Colton asserts in a recent interview post on M.K. Tod’s A Writer of History blog:

“The manuscript should not offer a single word, phrase, or description inconsistent with the era, or the illusion of time displacement will be compromised.” 

 

In his Royal Literary Fund article titled, “No Pastiche: Re-voicing the Past“, James Wilson explains that he goes as far as actually learning the (English) language of the time:

“I learn the (or an) English that’s appropriate to the world in which the novel is set, and then use it – exactly as I would my own present-day English – to describe the characters’ experience as vividly and authentically as I can.”

 

These are high goals. And, of course, few of us have the patience to read Old English. I haven’t read works by either Mr. Colton or Mr. Wilson but I trust they have learned to balance today’s reader expectations and pace with their immersion research.

My next post will address my own challenges in this area.

Meanwhile, what are your favorite examples of historical fiction that best reflect the language of the period without getting bogged down for today’s reader?

What are your favorite #Histfic reads that best reflect that period’s #language usage?