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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouseforwriters, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, just published, as well as their work in progress.

Victoria also teaches a workshop in Writing Historical Fiction for Coffeehouse for Writers. 

Word Choices in Historical Fiction
Victoria Grossack

One of the great challenges in writing historical fiction is finding the right words to express your thoughts. This is necessary in every piece of writing, but when you write historical fiction you encounter an additional hurdle: How do you choose words to reflect the time period of your setting but still make your story flow for the reader?

If your time period is fairly recent, for example, World War II, you won’t have to make many adjustments between the languages of now and then. You can use the language of the actual period. But if you’re writing a novel set in Elizabethan England, the language of the period will frustrate many would-be readers. Your spellchecker will also go mad. If you go back further in time, or set it in another country in the past, the actual language may not even be English. Thus, the writer of historical fiction must make compromises. Here is a list of do’s, don’ts and maybes for the writer of historical fiction.

Don’t use anachronisms (references to items that don’t belong in your chosen time period).
You know better than to refer to planes, trains and automobiles if you’re writing a novel set in the time of Alexander the Great. But what about tomatoes? And coffee? And coins? This is where your research comes in handy. You need to know these answers, or you will mislead novices to your time period and annoy experts. In fact, an incorrect reference can ruin the reading experience for people familiar with your time period.

Don’t use contemporary slang.
Phrases and words exist which belong to today and probably don’t belong in your book. Can you imagine Scarlett O’Hara saying to Melanie Wilkes, “Her dress is groovy?” Of course not! Although you could argue that your characters were not speaking English and that they meant the meaning behind “groovy,” you’re better off selecting another word. Words such as “groovy,” “OK,” and even the use of the word “got” can jar your readers out of the world you are creating for them.

Maybe use thee and thy.
There are a host of words commonly associated with days of yore, such as thee, thy, thou. You may want to use them, because many of them are still accessible to the readers of today, and they can give the appropriate flavor to your words, especially if your novel takes place during the Revolutionary War – or even if you are writing a fantasy novel. The downside is that they can create a barrier for the readers entering your world. The upside is that once the reader feels comfortable with the language you are using, she may enjoy the experience more, for she will have more of an other world experience.

Please, if you opt to use thou, thee, thy and thine, consider using them correctly! All these words refer to the second person, singular and familiar (equivalent to tu or du in French and German, respectively). For example, you should not use “thou” when your characters are addressing more than one person.

Thou is the subject form (you use it in the same part of the sentence where you would use the word I): “Dost thou want bread?”

Thee is the object form (you use it in the same part of the sentence where you would use the word me): “I would fain give thee bread.”

Thy is possessive followed by a noun (you use it in the same part of the sentence where you would use the word my): “Here is thy daily bread.”

Thine is possessive not followed by a noun (you use it in the same part of the sentence where you would use the word mine): “That morsel of bread is thine.” However, thine should be used instead of thy before a noun starting with a vowel: “That is thine uncle.”

Thyself is the reflexive case (you use it in the same part of the sentence where you would use the word myself): “Dost thou wish to do it thyself?”

Of course, your characters don’t have to speak with grammatical precision – lots of people don’t speak that way – but you should at least know they’re speaking incorrectly as opposed to making them do this unintentionally.

In my own writing – so far – I have opted not to use this type of language. Partly this is because my time period does not call for it; partly this is because I have to use so many difficult names for places and people that I want to make the rest of the language as easy on the reader as possible. But there are stories haunting my fantasy which might benefit from my use of the second-person familiar.

Maybe alter the spelling.
For example, my novels are set in ancient Greece. The character commonly known as “Creon” I have chosen to write as “Kreon”. The first reason is for authenticity’s sake: Modern Greek does not contain the letter “c” so none of my names or places contains that letter either – unless combined with the letter “h”, as in “Chloris”, where the “Ch” corresponds to the Greek letter “Chi”. A second reason is because I want my readers to understand that the Kreon that I portray is not necessarily the same Kreon (at least with respect to personality) as the Kreon whom they have encountered in works by Sophocles.

Changing the spelling has other disadvantages. It takes longer for the readers to warm up and feel comfortable with the new and different names. If people are using a search engine to locate information on your characters, they may have more difficulty finding your website. On the other hand, when the readers do become comfortable with the character names I have created, the world associated with them becomes that more personal.

Do help your readers with unfamiliar words.
If you have a word which your characters would know but your readers might not, then make the meaning clear from context. For example, a fibula is a bone in the body. It is also an ancient Roman safety pin. Make its meaning clear from the context of the rest of the sentence in which the word fibula is used.

Or, when you have to introduce many characters with unfamiliar names, ease your readers into them. Try to limit the introduction of new names and characters to one or two at a time. Repeat the names occasionally with little reminders reflecting their role in the story until your readers are secure in who is who. Some writers do want to confuse their readers with respect to the nature of the characters in their book. But your decision to confuse your readers should be deliberate, not unintentional.

Words are about the lowest level to the structure of any book. (Letters, and parts of words, are a level lower and we touched on letter choice in your decision in how to spell.) The right words will help you create the right atmosphere for your historical novel.

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