Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In Search of Language in Writing Historicals

by Kathy Fischer-Brown 

In setting historical novels for a contemporary audience, dialogue and voice are vital elements for bringing the past to life. Before I park myself in front of the computer to write, I need to hear the characters speak. I want to hear, not just the particular tone and quality of their voices—so if they were to call up on the phone, I’d know who they were—but its rhythms and word choices. Like other writers, I hear voices (too often at the most inconvenient times), and it’s the particular sound and rhythms I try to get right in their dialogue and inner monologues. Unfortunately there are complications in that we have only a vague idea what eighteenth century speech sounded like as it was spoken on a daily basis.

Unlike the barely-to-almost recognizable English of the early Medieval and into the Renaissance periods, the English language of “The Age of Enlightenment” closely approximates today’s written (and it is assumed, its spoken) word. This was also the time when punctuation rules were being formulated for the first time, so we can read along and hear in our minds how the author intended the words to sound, their pauses and full stops. We have a number of dictionaries from the period: Robert Crawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall, (1604), works by Elisha Coles, Thomas Blount, Edward Phillips, and Samuel Johnson’s monumental A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), to name a few. These dictionaries not only defined the words, but made an attempt to standardize their pronunciation. 
Obviously we have no recordings of our ancestors from the 1700s, but we have some idea of the accents that defined English speech in the thirteen original colonies, some of which are still with us (such as the Bostonian “pahk the cah” or Bernie Sanders’s Brooklyn “yuge”). It’s presumed these regionalisms were derived from the areas in Great Britain where the settlers of New England originated. These in turn acquired flavor in the melting pot, seasoned by smatterings from the Dutch, German, and French—both words and their pronunciations. (An excellent case for this theory can be found in The Story of English, by Robert McCrum. William Cran, and Robert MacNeil.)

A most important tool for the writer of historicals is the written word of the period, especially poetry, which is most helpful when rhyming words give an indication of how certain words were pronounced over two hundred years ago…except when the rhyme is strained. (By the way, is it “huzzah,” or “huzzay”? The battle rages on in this informative and entertaining article, by Norman Fuss). Letters, plays, novels, political treatises, newspaper articles all provide glimpses into the way people wrote, which was generally more formal than daily speech.

A pet peeve of mine is finding words in modern historicals—both in dialogue and narrative—that didn’t exist in the period. Even trickier are words which appear to be modern that were actually in use. The question for a writer attempting to recreate an accurate depiction of a far gone time is whether to use such words and expressions without jolting the reader out of the setting. I tend to avoid both cases.

Another quandary is: “How much period lingo is too much?” A pinch of Thees and thous, prithees, vouchsafes, and the like sprinkled in with dialogue that is easy on the modern eye and ear goes a long way toward establishing the era and the characters’ individual and societal idiosyncracies. Same goes for accents. A minor character in Courting the Devil, “Major” Fergus McKenna, is veteran of the French and Indian Wars. Without going into too much detail, I wanted to establish his Scottish roots with a word or a phrase here and there, without attempting to capture his accent on the page.  Accents are ‘tricksy little hobbitses’ and best approached with a light hand.

Some Cool Links


Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh's Daughter, Courting the DevilThe Partisan's Wife and The Return of Tachlanad, her newly released epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her The Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of her books are available in a variety of e-book formats and in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, as well as a bookstore near you.