Language in Historical Fiction


I suppose I am getting ahead of myself blogging about the way I write historical fiction when I have nothing published yet, so these are as much the thoughts of a reader as a writer.

While the details of place, and manners and customs play a large part in creating the historical world, the style of language in which a story is written helps to immerse the reader. Each writer, whether of historical or of other fiction, develops his or her own distinctive way of using language. With historical fiction this can immediately propel the reader into the past by means of rhythm, sentence structure and word choice. It is particularly the case with first person narratives. The Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears comprises four first person narratives, each with a distinctive voice. It is clear from the first page that a man of the 1660s is speaking. A. S. Byatt’s Possession, in its Victorian sections, draws on Victorian literary expression to present her story. In these examples, as the writing is skilful, the experience is little different from reading John Bunyan, Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell. Books written to imitate an earlier period are clearly intended for the more sophisticated reader as they are usually require commitment given they are not fast reads. I often find, though, that once I am several chapters in I no longer notice the style and am drawn along by the story.

Sometimes this approach can appear overly formal and stilted. Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia Wrede is the Grimm Brother’s folk tale set and written in, for the most part, Elizabethan English. I found it an interesting exercise but not an easy or compelling read although others considered it ‘fun’. Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series has the same effect on some readers. I am a committed fan but the first book in the series, Game of Kings, is dense with Scottish dialect and an English vocabulary that had me reaching for the dictionary. The narrative drive was such that I had to finish the book. With the second book Queen’s Play, although at that point I disliked Francis Crawford, the main protagonist, I persevered for the same reason; however, by the time I was a few chapters into The Disorderly Knights I was completely hooked. I don’t know whether it was that I was finally accustomed to Dunnett’s use of language or if her writing had simplified to a degree but I have now read the complete Lymond and Niccolo cycle twice. I would thoroughly recommend them but with the plea to persevere until the third book, which is a lot to ask in these fast paced days of instant gratification.

In her Author’s Note to The Privateer (a novel about the privateer Henry Morgan) Josephine Tey’s wrote

It is, further, advisable when writing fiction about a period now ‘historic’ that no distortion should take place owing to the use of ‘period’ dialogue. If the characters in the story did not sound quaint to each other, then they have no right to sound quaint to us. What a young man may actually have said to his patron may be: ‘I am vastly gratified by your condescension, sir, and very sensible of my obligation to you,’ but that is not how the words sounded to his benefactor. What his benefactor understood him to say was: ‘Thank you very much, sir. That is very kind of you.’
The Privateer
(1977, c.1952. p. 254).

I would agree. With my own writing, my aim is for the language to be unobtrusive – a vehicle for propelling the story, not an end in itself. I try to achieve this by avoiding words that would make the reader pause or pull him or her out of the story. This means being careful not to use words that are thoroughly modern (no hangovers or electrifying attraction) or overly archaic (no beshrewing or suffigances). I have limited myself to using only those contractions that can be found in Shakespeare’s writings. While I do use some 16th century terms not in common use now, they are easily understandable in context and help, I hope, to give the sense that the story is taking place in the foreign country that is the past. I hope I have achieved something that is both readable and historical in flavour.

Useful resources
Oxford English Dictionary online
This is the complete OED and is utterly brilliant as it gives not only the date a word first appeared in print but also the changing meanings over time. It is available to library members of most public libraries in Australia as well as the State Libraries. I have allowed myself a fifty year leeway as published writing was such a formal medium in the 16th century so there would have been a substantial delay (the exception being Shakespeare whose creations were quickly in print) between common usage and a word first appearing in print.

Brouhaugh, William English Through the Ages Cincinnati : Writers Digest Books, 1998. This book is basically a timeline of English words according to when they can be confirmed as first in use, when they changed in meaning and when related words (such as the noun use of a verb) came into being. It is a handy reference when I don’t want to go online.

Partridge, Eric Shakespeare’s Bawdy Taylor & Francis, 2001. An analysis of bawdy expressions and allusions in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets both sexual and non-sexual. Includes an extensive alphabetical glossary of all words and phrases used in a sexual or scatological sense, with full explanations and cross-references.

Rhymezone’s Shakespeare search is particularly useful for checking abbreviations and getting sense of contemporary words in context.

2 thoughts on “Language in Historical Fiction

    • Thank you. I hope to have something published some time in the middle of this year.
      I managed to get a complete set of the OED (1961 edn., twelve volumes) that was on the book sale shelves of another library for less than you would pay for two hardbacks these days. Definitely an extravagance. The online version is up-to-date and so useful when I am working online but it still gives me a thrill to use the books.


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