Writing Historical Fiction: Language

currently playing on my iPod: Letters From The Sky by Civil Twilight

Many writers wonder What type of language is permissible in my historical fiction ms? Through numerous discussions with successful authors, editors, and historical fiction readers, I’ve gathered a few tips for all of us to remember.

1. Whether your setting is 9th c Greece or 13th c England, stick with standard modern English. Although you and your terribly nerdy pals at the historical somethingorother society think it would be fantastic to read a story written in Norman French or Middle English, most readers will not enjoy that challenge.

2. Toss in a few historically accurate words or phrases to give flavor. Including an unfamiliar word lends a feeling of veracity to your novel, allowing the reader to more fully immerse herself into the time and culture of your characters. Be sure to use immediate context clues to help the reader understand the out-of-use word. Flavor becomes annoying pretty quickly when your reader feels confused and/or uneducated. 

3. Avoid the silly old language faux pas. None of the tis, yon, or thou sort of garbage.

4.  Watch for modernisms. Oftentimes we are not aware of our own dialectal disturbances in writing. Find a reader who is from another state, country, and generation and listen to what they have to say about your characters’ language. Modern colloquialisms jar the reader from their historical immersion and hopelessly date your book for future readers. Like totally freak me out I am for sure.

Keep your language fresh and be willing to experiment, but don’t go crazy. The line is a fine one and I wish you luck as you walk it.

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