What dost thou say?

Thrice.  Fortnight.  He’s the bee’s knees.

If you came across these or other expressions in an old or historical novel, would they make you stop reading so you could look them up?  Make you fall further into the story?  Make you put down the book altogether?

This is a problem writers of historical fiction face as they write, particularly those of us who write for young readers.  We want to make a story as authentic as possible, yet write a story that’s engaging and understandable.  And everyone who reads your book will have an opinion on how far is too far.  One of my grad school mentors got me to cut “like” out of most of my manuscript so my 1940s heroine didn’t inadvertantly sound like a Valley Girl.  At the same time, critique partners deemed some of the re-worded phrasing as sounding “too adult.”

Finding this delicate balance won’t come from one post by one Damsel in Regress, but as a starting place for discussion, I asked a few of our past interviewees for their opinions.

Randall Platt, author of Hellie Jondoe, made an interesting point that she uses more period language in dialogue than she does in narrative.  To her, it’s easier to discern meaning from an unfamiliar word in dialogue than it is while reading action or description.  She also uses dialogue to explain archaic words, but feels that if she has to give explanation in narrative, it’s better to just cut it out altogether even if it’s technically correct.  (Wish I could figure out how this applies to my first-person stories…)

Kim Ablon Whitney, author of The Other Half of Life, had an additional challenge I and other historical authors share: she used not only archaic words, but also some foreign words because her characters were German.  Not an easy balance to strike, but when I asked her about it, she emphasized making it clear through context.  For her, glossaries are a distraction, so being able to dicern a word from its context is essential.  As a reader, though, she shares my own view that archaic words, if able to be figured out by context, make you fall more into the dream of the story.

This is far from the final word on period language, so please share your thoughts as writers and readers!

P.S.  Kirby Larson, author of Hattie Big Sky, also had this to add: Don’t overload your young readers, but don’t underestimate them, either, because they probably love learning new words.  More sage advice!

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3 Responses to What dost thou say?

  1. Michaela MacColl says:

    My first book, Prisoners in the Palace, is about Princess Victoria at home. So I was playing with Victorian language. But part of my plot involved the royal family speaking german — so that got scattered in a bit. And then, just for fun, I threw in Inside Boy Jones a Cockney thief. But I do agree with the post that the place for this language is in the voice of my characters, not the narration (unless of course you’re doing first person… conundrum! Egads!)

  2. Emilie says:

    Wow, Michaela–three different dialects in one book! You’ve got your work cut out for you, that’s for sure! I never thought much about the idea that dialogue can use more period phrasing that narration, but now that I’ve had a few authors mention it, I totally agree. I also see why my grad school mentor wanted me to use third person in my thesis, but I am nothing if not a do-er of things the hard way…:)

    Is your book out or forthcoming? Sounds like a compelling read!

  3. Meg Mims says:

    Totally agree with Whitney and Larson. Hate glossaries. And I prefer making young adult readers curious about language use. That’s my adage. Heh.

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