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?

7 Things I’ve Learned About Twitter

Call me slow, but I have finally joined the Twittershere.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  1. Twitter is not so much about relationships – I guess that time has passed.
  2. No, I don’t want to buy your book. “I mute you. I mute you. I mute you.” (Yay! for Tweetdeck!)
  3. I find it weird that people tweet about themselves in third person.
  4. I’ve found lots of new resources: writing, marketing, history.
  5. And medieval manuscripts –  – images work! I’m an artist. I’m visual. I’m giddy with the eye candy.
  6. But I quickly decided pictures without links to the original source irritate me. So I’m being careful not to post them myself and I’m no longer retweeting them.
  7. I lurked on my first live Twitter chat. That was like drinking from a fire hose. But I figured out how to just follow the feed of the main speaker and block out the other noise.

Not too bad for a newbie.

I’ve updated my Creative Accountability Page with my writing progress.

And added a blog post to the Long Ago & Far Away site. (The blog for Historical Fiction Off the Beaten Path).

I’d love to hear how you are using Twitter these days. Have you been at it for a while? Has it changed for you? Do you use it to interact directly with people? Or just participate in the big shotgun fest?

The History of Byzantium Podcast

I just posted this on my Long Ago & Far Away blog:

I’ve been meaning to start a Resources page for this blog and will do so tonight.

But first, I want to highlight The History of Byzantium Podcast as it is a rich source of information as well as entertainment for treadmill duty or long drives up I95. I am partial to it since the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire are my current focus, but I am convinced any lover of history will find them fascinating.

The blog posts include imagery, links to maps and to the related Facebook and Twitter sites. A few episodes are for sale – $5.00 – in order for the podcast’s creator, Robin Pierson, to help fund his otherwise voluntary effort. At this writing, the collection is up to 42 podcasts, the last of which covers AD 606-608.

Mr. Pierson began this project with the intent of continuing the efforts of Mike Duncan’s, The History of Rome podcasts – which started in July 2007 and ran to 179 episodes! I have linked to the first post/podcast, so you can start at the beginning.

Both of these sites have links to bibliographies and additional history podcasts.

Please let me know if you enjoy them or if you have other resources for our new Resource Page.

—- I will build a Resources Page for this site as well.

Happy listening!