So much in writing depends on making choices, and one of the main choices we must make in writing historical fiction is what level of language to use. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction defines this as ‘diction’ – our choice of words. The basic choice is coarse (which I shall call ‘churlish’) or fine (‘noble’). One of the great attractions of writing historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to use noble language that our own age no longer gives us, unless we want to sound very affected. Because of this impoverishment of modern language, in ‘flashback’ novels – novels which are set in our times but flash back to the past – the modern story can seem very thin and dull compared to the historical story. See Peter Ackroyd’s otherwise wonderful The House of Dr Dee.
There are two areas to consider. One is dialogue: how our characters speak to each other, and with what level of language. The other is the narration: how does the author speak about the characters and events? Both require a choice to be made on diction. Let’s deal with the second first, as it is easiest. Here are some examples:
1. He hath writ much
2. He’s written a lot
3. He has written much
The first is a parody of period language. The second is modern colloquial. The third is an authorial contrivance to suggest the first – let’s call it ‘blended diction’. You can guess which I’m going to recommend, can’t you? The third is usually the safest and most successful route.
Play time! Write three versions of each of the following statements in the periods of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. Try and think of what people of the time really would have said, judge whether it is appropriate and use your own words if necessary:
He arrived this morning
She is pregnant
She combed her hair
He put on his trousers
Example for the day (what of I leave to you to determine):
His tightly woven mantle kept off rain most nimbly, for I could see that it was greasy and the drops that fell from the branches were disperpled by it. Adam Thorpe, Hodd.
In the next posting we’ll look more at ‘blended’ diction.