Dear Dr Darwin
My characters don’t think they sound historical, but their present-day isn’t my present-day: they are Other to us. If I make them sound like 21st century people then the novel will just be like a modern film in pretty period costumes, but if I try to write the novel as it would be written at the time, it’ll be very hard work to read at all. What do I do?
Vocal of Vienna
I’m not surprised you’re vocal: our other historical stuffs, from cooking-pots to religious faith, are important, but handling them is straightforward: we must evoke them well enough that the reader willingly ‘buys into’ the world of the fiction. But the voice of any fiction is both one of those stuffs, and the medium through which all the stuffs are evoked, and made vivid and believable.
In his Note on Language in his novel The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth says, “The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.”
Whereas Julian Barnes said that his novel Arthur and George, is “not a historical novel, rather a contemporary novel which happens to happen a hundred years ago … It depends what your path is to the reader. A historical novel is trying to put the reader back in that time, with all the furniture and fittings of the time. I wanted the reader to be in the twenty-first century.”
Certainly Barnes doesn’t use aggressively modern grammar and vocabulary: his prose is stylishly plain and neutral. But one generation’s “neutral” is the previous generation’s “modern”, and some Americanisms, for example, sound “modern” to British ears, when in fact they preserve older English phrases which were current here in the past. So what feels “right” or “wrong” to the writer and reader is bound to be extremely subjective. Dickens wanted the voice of A Tale of Two Cities to read as authentically late-18th Century, and his contemporaries agreed he’d succeeded, but to us, it’s mostly mid-Victorian Dickens.
Still, unless you’re writing a comic, parodic novel, you probably wouldn’t make your sulky, hair-tossing Roman teenager say “Whatevs!”, nor his mother shout, “You’re grounded! End of!”. But “authenticity” is a chimera too, because meanings slide: the mid-to-late 15th century Paston letters are perfectly readable, but their shrewd translates to our hurtful, child to our servant, and take to our give: how much confusion would those create in your story? Even if your novel is set in the 1930s, the rhythms of the written language have changed, the sentence structures have evolved, and the default vocabulary too: compare what you’re writing with Graham Greene or H G Wells. Reproducing that, however faithfully, will be evocative for some readers, but very old-fashioned or pastiche-y for others.
One technique is easy and obvious: restricting the historical words to greetings, swear-words and other “extra” bits of speech that won’t confuse the meanings that matter: “Good day to you, goodwife! Would you like a ride to market? I’m going that way myself … Zounds! What’s in this basket? It weighs a ton.” Yes, it’s clear, and not too modern-sounding. But “easy and obvious” risks becoming lazy shorthand, “signalling” to the reader what this is about, without actually evoking the individuality and immediacy of the moment. And because the number of words this works with is very limited, most of them have become thundering clichés since the days of Baroness Orczy.
So if you want the voice of your narrative to feel authentic rather than second-hand, then you’re going to have to dig a little deeper and work harder to integrate your historical models, and your own writerly voice, to create something fresh and vivid. Here are some things to help:
- Read the voices of the period: letters, diaries, plays, poetry, fiction written then. Soak in lots of it, and analyse some: Are there characteristic shapes of sentence? Unusual ways of using particular words? Words which modern readers will know, but are not what we’d use today for that thing?
- Read your historical sources aloud, to feel the rhythm and cadence of your models; try copying some out to get the feel into your fingers.
- Remember that what matters is believability and consistency. Accuracy and authenticity matter too, of course, but only in the sense that they help or hinder that believability.
- Read historical fiction beyond your normal tastes, to expand your sense of what’s possible: both very consciously “voicey” writers like Peter Ackroyd and Anthony Burgess, and those with a more contemporary voice, such as Barnes or Manda Scott.
- Don’t trust that other writers’ historical fiction is “right” about what’s accurate, and don’t use it as a source, or your version will be third-hand: go yourself to the first-hand sources.
- Study good historical fiction: what not-modern words do they use and in what proportion? How much do they use not-modern syntax and grammar? How do they make the meaning of obscure words clear to a reader who doesn’t know them?
- Don’t get hung up on exactly when words came into use: for one thing, who knows when they were first spoken, when we only have records of writing?
- Relax about using contractions: we feel they’re modern but the Oxford English Dictionary lists the first written won’t as in 1666 and don’t as 1670. Common sense dictates that people have always elided words when they speak, so let your ear (reading aloud again!) tell you when your characters should do the same.
- Remember that narrative, too, always has one foot in how people actually speak, specially if your novel is cast as someone’s memoir or confession. Even if your narrator isn’t a character in the story, it might help focus your sense of the voice to imagine who they might be. What does who they are, and why they need to tell this story, mean for how it’s told?
- Remember you can probably go closer to “ventriloquism” of your period’s real voices in letters and other kinds of document, as they’re shorter and don’t need to flow as easily into the reader’s head.
- Many writers choose to be more thoroughly “historical” in dialogue than narrative, to evoke the characters’ immediate presence, or the other way round, because speech is usually simpler in form and vocabulary than a “written” account would be.
- Try a very over-the-top first draft, having fun with archaic and regional words, slang and weird, even made-up phrases. Be as free and crazy as you like – and then tone it down in second draft. Or try a standalone story, separate from the narrative needs of the novel, purely to experiment with voices.
- Remember that the reader will go with almost anything if you do it confidently, wholeheartedly, and consistently; so make some decisions for yourself about how you’re going to do this, and be brave.
Got a question for Dr Darwin? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t promise a reply but all questions will be considered for future columns.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.