Too much period language in a historical novel?
I was recently in the mood to read some historical fiction and decided to pick an indie novel. The blurb sounded fun and I looked forward to spending hours and hours in another period. As per usual, I started with a Kindle sample.
And that’s as far as I got.
In fact, I didn’t even get to the end of the sample.
I gave up.
So, what was the problem? To be honest, there were numerous problems. Some are simply related to the lack of a good editor – or any editor. Because I suspect this book never saw an editor.
But that was not the biggest issue.
No, the biggest issue was the language. Or rather, the saturated archaic language meant to evoke the period.
The problems with syntax, grammar, and shifting tenses only added to the difficult prose.
So, let’s talk about using period language in historical fiction. What can possibly go wrong? And should you use it? And is there such a thing as too much period language in a historical novel?
An unfamiliar language
The biggest issue is that modern readers are simply not familiar with this language. A writer might feel impatient at the unwillingness of modern readers to wade through overtly archaic language. But bear with me…
For people of a particular period – say, Shakespeare’s time – the language used back then would be clear and transparent. It would not be confusing. It would be their own way of speaking – depending on class and education obviously.
They would not notice anything strange or elaborate about their way of writing and speaking. It would be the norm.
It would be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass.
But, to our modern ears, it sounds like a different form of English… With a higher number of obsolete or strange words. Some words would be recognisable but possibly spelled differently. Or they might now appear in a slightly different form.
If people from Shakespeare’s time were to teleport to the present and listen to us talk, we too would be hard to understand. Yes, people can acclimatise to speech and new words. But it’s hard work.
And a novel isn’t meant to be hard work. At least, not when it’s a genre novel.
But the point I was making above about period language being normal and easily understood within its time is important. When you use modern language, you might think it doesn’t sound right. But using the reader’s language, with some period words sprinkled here and there, is the easiest way to convey the period. (Along with actual descriptions of locations, events, mores, and so on.)
Because to the people of Shakespeare’s time, their language was normal. It wasn’t a novelty or colourful or rich.
Therefore, it doesn’t work to replicate the language of that time. Because we can never experience it as anything other than outsiders. Readers are like time travellers. They travel back and they immerse themselves in the period. But if they don’t have the natural language of the period, it’s going to be difficult. They will always be that modern person trying to fit in and never quite succeeding.
To experience the period more accurately, it’s best to remove as many linguistic barriers as possible.
Other ways to convey period language
You don’t need to drop all period language. It’s a matter of density. Overuse makes the story harder to read and a modern writer is never going to write as fluently as a writer from the original period.
In fact, a modern writer can make a big old mess of period language precisely because they are not and never will be fluent in the language. They don’t use it every day, speak it to their family, think in it, write in it, and hear it from their neighbours.
A modern writer can unwittingly fall into pastiche or parody.
It’s far better to read a lot of material from the period and listen to the rhythm of the language. Choose some words to use, but try to make your prose as transparent as possible. You should aim to give a flavour of the period.
To go beyond that means alienating readers who might otherwise have bought your work.
The language is the medium through which a story is delivered. So, the question is this – what should the writer’s priority be? Telling the story and introducing the reader to the characters? Or injecting a strong sense of the period through the language? You might try both and do a good job, but it’s a difficult balance.
Get a good line editor
If you’re going to attempt to write in the language of the period, you cannot skimp on a good line editor.
Because if you set up one difficult hurdle for the reader – obscure language – you can’t afford to have additional problems with grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc.
All books will have some errors in them. The fewer the better. However, the more errors there are, the more times readers trip up.
Here are just some of the problems you don’t want to be mixing in with overtly archaic language:
- One long and convoluted sentence after another – this not only drags the pace, but it taxes the modern attention span
- Grammatically incorrect sentences that force the reader to back up and read them again as they try to unpick the meaning (made worse by too much archaic language)
- Meandering tenses
I would also suggest being careful with overly long paragraphs. Especially if you have rather a lot of them. They can drag the pace down. They can also be more taxing on the eye, requiring visual scanning across one long line after another. Again, throw in too many strange words on top of this and a modern reader might balk.
Having said all that, some readers do like a lot of period language – especially if they have some knowledge of the period to start with. But it’s worth considering the downsides and offset some of the cons by ensuring your book is edited well.
Do you have a historical novel in need of a critique?
One of my developmental editing services is an opening chapters edit. Contact me for a quote since you can opt for a custom word count. This developmental edit is detailed. It includes an editorial letter, plus track commenting in the margins of your manuscript. I read your manuscript several times, which allows me to dig deeper into the writing, characterisation, and plot. I’m also available for follow-up email feedback. You can email me at email@example.com.
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Karen, Good advise. I once listened to an interview with a historical novelist who suggested using, sic, bygone-eze. A few words sprinkled here and there along with, perhaps, a sentence written in 17th century syntax. That was my method when I wrote The French Blue. Since the protagonist, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, has written a book, I attempted to capture his voice. Seemed to work though at least one or two Amazon reviewers remarked on my boring writing style.