Writing Advice

  • Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Can you have too much period language in a historical novel?
    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    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 historical fiction?

    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.

    Why?

    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?

    I’m currently offering a special deal on 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 karen@indiecateditorial.com.

    Other IndieCat Blog posts

    Social media blockers

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    How to order the stories in a collection

    Why your book cover design matters

  • Fear of exposure in first-person narrative

    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative can lead to self-censorship.
    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative can lead to self-censorship

    Have you ever struggled to write a story based on personal experience because you fear revealing yourself in some particularly vulnerable way? While there are writers who prefer to deal with fictional stories, others weave in the events of their lives, including painful experiences, traumas, and things they’ve never spoken about before.

    They give these experiences to fictional characters, in possibly fictional settings, distancing the narrative from the real-life details. And yet, in spite of these distancing techniques, for the author it might feel just a bit too uncomfortable.

    Self-censorship is often a problem for writers. Even when it comes to fiction, a writer may fear readers will assume a biographical element. One reason is the way literature is often taught in school. We’re encouraged to explore where a writer’s themes and subject matter may intersect with their own life.

    You can see it with writers like Fitzgerald. His history with Ginevra King and her influence on characters like Daisy Buchanan and Judy Jones can lead to readers assuming writers, in general, use real people or events as inspiration. However, it would be a mistake to assume too much about what is and isn’t true. But knowing some readers have those assumptions might give a writer pause.

    Another issue is how much more personal a narrative becomes when it’s written in first person. Even when the character is completely fictional and not a fictionalised version of the writer, there is still the fear of exposure or discovery. An author might worry about what family and friends will think – this is especially true when it comes to erotic writing.

    But when it comes to actual traumatic events and experiences, writing in first person might get closer to the experience. Yet sometimes it can be too painful, or too risky. It can seem like crossing from a fictionalised account into something closer to memoir.

    And when it comes to painful subjects, writers might prefer to maintain some distance. You can achieve this by using third person. This might help achieve some objectivity, and possibly allows the author the space to explore things without self-censorship. When you’re worried readers and family will assume something is true, you might find yourself hiding the truth and hiding too much. And then you can run into a serious writing block.

    This is why it’s worth considering a third-person point of view to get around these issues. Writers might be put off using third person because it seems more distant. This is because a lot of third-person narratives can be an over-the-shoulder perspective that doesn’t really dwell much in the character’s head.

    But it’s totally possible to dig deeper using deep third. Here the character’s thoughts and the narrative merge together to become the narrative. It also avoids the problem of writing thoughts in italics or using thought tags and other filter words.

    You can also tackle painful personal topics by changing the gender or age of your main character. You can set your story in a different time and/or place. This can help you establish a safe distance if you feel that’s necessary.

    You can also use a mixture of strategies – third person/different age/different location or time period.

    Fear of exposure in first-person narrative is a real issue. But if you really want to write about an experience without self-revelation you have a range of options. You don’t have to self-censor if you don’t want to. You don’t have to allow fear of exposure and the judgement of others to silence your voice.

    Photo by Alexandru Zdrobău on Unsplash

    Other IndieCat Editorial posts that might interest you

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?

  • How IndieCat Editorial can help you

    How IndieCat Editorial can help you. Developmental editing of fiction and memoir for indie authors.
    How IndieCat Editorial can help you

    Does this sound familiar?

    You try so hard to write a kick-ass novel that will wow readers and get everyone talking. Then you go around in circles tweaking and rewriting. Because you need to get it just perfect! And for a while, your book genuinely seems to be getting better. Then you lose a subplot or a character falls out stage left.

    Now you’re demoralised and stressed out. Your manuscript has turned into a monster, complete with tentacles. (Where did all these loose bits come from?)

    You’ve struggled to find reliable beta readers. Maybe you’ve tried online writing groups only to feel intimidated or frustrated because some of the advice just seemed plain wrong or contradictory.

    Unfortunately, serious indie authors and those hoping to submit to agents will always struggle with polishing their work. Everyone does, including seasoned professionals.

    Indie writers don’t have a publisher to help

    When you have an agent and a publishing house, you have a team working to support you and your book. You can take confidence in trained experts making your book the best it can be.

    But when you’re publishing yourself or just starting out, you don’t have these things. Then, you’re often dependent on the conflicting advice of writing groups and beta readers.

    Worse, they’re not trained to spot underlying problems, let alone anticipate the way different fixes impact one another in a manuscript. Because when you change one thing it can have a knock-on effect on everything else. Other writers or beta readers can also base their advice on how they would have written the book if it was theirs. That’s not the kind of advice you want. Because it’s not their book, it’s yours.

    You need someone who will respect your author voice and intentions.

    How developmental editing helps you

    That’s where developmental editing comes in. Developmental editing, also known as structural editing or substantive editing, is the first round of editing. This is where a professional assesses the big picture issues in your manuscript. They look for plot holes, structural problems, slow pacing, weak characterisation, and more.

    Think about it – how often have you given up on a novel you were reading because the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere or the characters were two-dimensional? A developmental edit highlights issues like this and allows you to fix them. Developmental editing takes your work to a whole new level.

    If you want to try out a developmental edit or manuscript, I offer a free 3,000-word sample edit. You can contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com or check out my services page.

  • Why your book cover design matters

    Important for indie authors - why your book cover design matters.
    Why your book cover design matters

    If you’re an indie author and you want to attract readers, your book cover design really matters. It’s one of your most important marketing tactics.

    Why?

    Have you ever gone into a bookstore and felt overwhelmed by all the books to choose from?

    What motivates you to pick up an unknown book?

    Snappy or intriguing title? Or were you attracted by the cover image? Did it call to you to investigate further and check out the back cover blurb?

    Cover design is the magnet that draws the eye and piques curiosity. It can draw attention even from the other side of a bookstore. Even from a distance, when you can’t yet read the author’s name or the book’s title.

    And that’s why your book cover design matters.

    Of course, book covers accomplish other things too. They indicate genre, age group, connect to existing trends, even hint at the story’s atmosphere (creepy, suspenseful, erotic).

    Cover art speaks to emotions – and this is important in marketing. There are genres where speaking to emotions is particularly important – romance being the primary example. But you might be in the mood for something suspenseful or creepy. Horror and thriller covers also speak to a potential reader’s emotions.

    The style of the cover might connect to a particular subgenre or resemble the cover art on a more famous book. This is a way for publishers to indicate fast that if you like those other books in this category, you’ll probably like this one too.

    With so many books to choose from, a design department has to come up with ways to make it easy for the right readers to find their book. The cover art offers visual clues. The book’s title might also offer clues.

    Your book needs to stand out from the crowd. In a saturated market – and this is particularly true on Amazon – you need people to see that your book exists. And that it looks professional, intriguing, exciting.

    If the cover is plain and offers no hints about the genre, someone browsing on Amazon is likely to ignore it.

    Book buyers are accustomed to helpful cover design – covers that act as filters for what they do and don’t like.

    The cover design should attract the right readers. It should never trick people into thinking the book is something it isn’t. For example, you wouldn’t put a historical couple embracing on the cover of a modern horror novel. If a reader buys the book on the basis of the cover alone, they are going to feel cheated.

    Also, if the cover art and design are subpar, it will be difficult to stand out from the crowd. Furthermore, if the design is poor, potential readers will likely draw conclusions about the overall quality of the book, including the story, characterisation, formatting, etc.

    A good cover shows the writer has taken a professional approach to their work. But it also allows the writer to better compete with traditionally published authors. If your book looks like a traditionally published book, it’s more likely to draw readers.

    As well as using high-quality cover art, you should ensure your covers look good as thumbnails because this is how they will appear on sites like Amazon. Equally, you need to make sure your fonts match your genre and cover design, and that the text is clear and readable both at full size and in thumbnail.

    Most people cannot produce great cover art or choose the right fonts for their own books.

    Even people with design skills can do a bad job because cover art and what works for the market are not their specialties.

    Also, cover art should be chosen on the basis of what appeals to readers rather than what a writer might want. This might seem annoying, but if you want to attract sales, you have to put yourself in the place of readers.

    It’s worth doing quite a lot of research on your genre, particularly in relation to the newest styles and what the traditional publishing industry is producing. Design departments in publishing houses have experts who know what they’re doing. If they’re following a particular trend, you can jump on board.

    Indie authors who want high-quality book covers have a number of options. You can hire designers for bespoke covers, or you can visit a site that is selling premade cover art. In the case of the latter, the fonts are already in place. You just need to change the title, author name, etc.

    Some premade cover art sells for hundreds of dollars, but there are decent covers for well under $100. If you only want an ebook cover, the price is lower. If you want a back cover for a print edition, you’ll have to pay more.

    Likewise, if you want to add in banner advertising, and ads for specific social media sites, that pushes the price up further. However, a streamlined set of marketing images to use on multiple platforms is a great professional look that will help you stand out from the crowd.

    Sites providing premade covers

    Please note – I have not tried any of these services, so I cannot recommend them. They are just examples of the kinds of sites out there.

    Premade Ebook Covers

    Book Cover Zone

    Probook Premade Covers

    The Book Cover Designer

    The Artful Cover

    Self Pub Book Covers

    Kingwood Creations

    Other IndieCat blogs you might like

    How to order the stories in a collection

    Wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website

    So indie authors aren’t real authors?

    When dialogue ruins your scenes

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique