Write Historical Fiction? Keep Their Language to Yourself or Risk Losing Readers

I love a good, “Huzzah” blurted out by Niles or Frasier Crane any day. When writing a work of historical fiction, however, it is best to keep the quaint phrases, stereotypical exclamations (i.e. – forsooth), and other verbal faux pas out of the story. The reason: you want the average person to be able to read your writing and not have to either google a word or look it up in their Random House Dictionary or Chaucer, take your pick.

My preferred time period is medieval/renaissance. There were some strange sayings back then in any given romance language. For example:

“…assuring you that on my side the ennui of absence is already too much for me: and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh unbearable for me were it not for the firm hope I have and as I cannot be with you in person, I am sending you the nearest possible thing to that, namely, my picture set in a bracelet, with the whole device which you already know. ”

Otherwise known as part of a letter that Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn. I must needs tell thee, then, that English thusly spake is not very comprehensible to the modern reader and ennui (aka boredom/melancholy) shall hastily ensue. Argh.

See what I mean? This is a brief but important matter to take to heart. We in America do tend to race about writing things that we fancy to be “English.” Most times, it leads to tedious prose that your prospective readers will NOT want to slog through in volume 2. They might even ban volume 1 permanently from their e-readers. That’s never good news for you, the aspiring author.

We all realize that historical pieces must be believable, but sometimes-no, more often than not- the historical detail, including language, enhances the character but does not define the character.

In both my War of the Roses series and Tea with Henry (set in middle Tudor England), I did have to use period-specific language to describe, say, the bill men who charged into battle first. There is no other way to say it. They wore armor with specific names to the pieces such as sallets and vambraces. But I swear you will never EVER read, “must needs” in any of the 3 volumes.

Did it irk me to lose the syntax and beauty to the spoken language? Sure, but I would rather sacrifice that than have a modern reader message me that my writing sucks because he or she can’t understand what I’m saying. Take it to heart because it would be a shame to sacrifice readers for 100% historical accuracy in everything.

About authorlisaadams

Love to write and read books. Became an attorney - not sure why. Surfer, world traveler, vague bohemian and a general outside the box individual...and I like it that way. Makes life interesting and also makes for some good stories.
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2 Responses to Write Historical Fiction? Keep Their Language to Yourself or Risk Losing Readers

  1. It is a very difficult line to straddle – readability and authenticity. I’m writing in the 18th and 19th century. Even that is difficult sometimes. Not to mention the problem of anachronistic words and phrases that would describe things perfectly, but were not yet coined.

    One must remember that the language of the 16th century – or worse, earlier – is not our language today. It’s more as if you are translating into modern English from a foreign language, rather than just modifying the language.

    • I agree. It most resembles translating a foreign language to be sure. If someone today has ever read “the classics” or Shakespeare, most probably found it can be a difficult process. Likewise with literary fiction, which doesn’t favor contractions and often uses words requiring one to keep a dictionary close at hand. LOL Thanks for the comment and the follow.

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