How To Write In An Authentic Historical Voice

How to Write in an Authentic Historical Voice

How to Write in an Authentic Historical VoiceLet’s say you’re writing a book set in the 14th Century. Naturally, as a diligent and conscientious writer, you want to do your research and write with an authentic historical voice. In fact, you’re so good and so authentic that what you end up with is something like this:

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, ther was a duc that highte theseus; of atthenes he was lord and governour, and in his tyme swich a conquerour, that gretter was ther noon under the sonne.

You’re a genius! Except… none of your readers know what you’re talking about (or that you just ripped off Geoffrey Chaucer).

So you try again and write something like this:

So, there was this old story about this duke. He was big bananas, baby.

Now readers can understand this just fine, but… the story still doesn’t make sense because nobody in medieval England probably even knew what a banana was.

4 Ways to Find the Best Historical Voice for Your Story

If you’re writing a historical character (or any character in a non-traditional setting), how can you find the right balance between accuracy and accessibility?

Let’s find out!

1. Study the Original Language

The farther back in time you go (or the farther from your country of publication), the more inaccessible the language will become—and the more you will have to compromise to make it it legible to your readers.

The greater your compromises, the better your understanding of the original language should be. Read extensively about your time period and geographic area. Learn the rhythm of its language and the patterns that governed its speech. More than anything, you’re looking for the rhythms that will evoke this period without necessarily adhering to its rules.

2. Study the Modern Perception of the Original Language

Next, start looking out for what modern-day readers expect from this time period and place. Depending on the popularity of the era and its proximity to our own, their expectations may align very closely to the reality.

For example:

  • The 1960s need to sound pretty much exactly like the 1960s, if only because many of your readers will have lived through that decade themselves.

The Help

  • The 1860s need to sound pretty close to the 1860s, if only because many of your readers will have read period literature and will understand (as the filmmakers of the western Jane Got a Gun did not) that “girlfriend” did not come into its common usage until 1922.

Jane Got a Gun

  • The 1360s, however, do not need to sound like the 1360s. Not anywhere close. Medieval English is now so far removed from modern English that no one expects or wants to read historical fiction that sounds (and spells) just like The Canterbury Tales. What modern readers do expect from antique time periods is a greater formality to the language, perhaps even a few “thees” and “thous” and “prithee let me beg a boons.”

3. Study the Common Mistakes

Once you understand how contemporary writers commonly handle the historical voice of your period (and, thus, what  readers have been trained to expect from it), you must also give some though to the most commonly perpetuated mistakes.

For all that readers want their historical characters to be accessible, they don’t want to be ripped out of their suspension of disbelief by obvious inconsistencies or impossibilities. Since your readers are obviously interested in the periods you’re writing about, chances are good they’ve done enough studying of their own to know Nero couldn’t possible talk about “fiddling” while Rome burned—since the violin had yet to be invented.

Nero Fiddle Quo Vadis Peter Ustinov

For help in identifying common mistakes and myths, start by checking out the following fun reads:

4. Choose a Consistent Mix of Original and Modern Language

Finally, you must make educated decisions about the right mix of language for your story. Choose where compromises are necessary (for example, in the spelling of ancient words) and where they are not (for example, in maintaining the no-contractions rule in the speech of Georgian gentry).

Then stick with your rules. If you spell it “jail” in one scene, don’t suddenly spell it “gaol” in another. If your minstrel character calls his lady “you” throughout the story, don’t suddenly switch to “thou” at the end (unless you’re deliberately and correctly using the more personal pronoun for characterization purposes).

Your goal is to create an accessibly modern voice with just enough historical flavor to evoke the period without interfering with your readers’ comprehension or enjoyment of the period.

For example, Charles Portis’s strict adherence to a historical voice in his post-Civil War western True Grit makes it an immersive but decidedly quirky narrative.

The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

Margaret Mitchell’s decidedly more modern voice for Scarlett O’Hara’s infamous adventures in the same period are perhaps less accurate, but more accessible—while still providing enough flavor of the period and place to convince readers they’re actually visiting Reconstruction Georgia.

Gone With the Wind Curtains

A great narrative voice is one of the key factors in bringing to life a powerful story. Finding the right balance of individuality, authenticity, and accessibility can make the crucial difference in pulling readers into your story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever used a historical voice in your stories? What period? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Nice timing. I’m currently writing a time travel with characters from the modern era (who have to be Brittish too! *headdesk*) intermingling with characters from the 13th century. *more headdesking*

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I sympathize. About the time I was editing my 1920s novel Storming, set in western Nebraska, I was also writing the first draft of my 1820s historical superhero WIP Wayfarer, set in London. The voices were completely different!

  2. Mine was easy, I lived through the 1980s so this wasn’t such a chore. After so many historically inaccurate movies, I would hope an author would take the time to get the basic historical facts right. Caution, too much emphasis on history could turn intended fiction into a history book or documentary, thus becoming boring.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s really fun when we get to use a voice similar to our own. I’ve only ever gotten to do it once, in Storming.

  3. Excellent advice, K. M.

    One of my favorite anachronistic movies is A Knight’s Tale which goes WAY off script from Chaucer to the point of parodying period pieces, yet without losing its charm. For the historical purist, there is a lot to complain about, but for a fun teen-age romp, the movie executes well.

    Another problem about authentic period speech is that sometimes there are things that sound anachronistic, but in reality are not. The fact that many of our idioms originated with Shakespeare makes common expressions we take for granted to day in the mouths of period characters sound out of place, even though they are historically accurate.

    It’s a tightrope, but walk it we must.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Actually, A Knight’s Tale is a great example of *how* to do it wrong, on purpose. There’s a big difference between deliberately deviating from history and doing it obliviously.

      • I agree. The fact that they were able to “do it wrong, on purpose” in A Knight’s Tale, only added to the enjoyment of the movie, particularly with the inclusion of modern music and dance. But I think that it is a lot easier to pull that off in a visual medium, like film, than it is in a novel.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Definitely. Humor, in general, is often easier in film, thanks to its inherent subtextual nature.

  4. Several times. Medieval, Regency, and most recently, 1901. The 1901 was hard because things that people WOULD say back then sounded horribly modern due to current slang. I had “You have the coolest yard in town.” Absolutely correct. Except that it sounds like it’s a supes aweomesauce yard instead of nice and temperate. Then, trying to use THEIR slang, I had to pull back because “snarky” has made a comeback nd felt modern, too. So frustrating.

  5. Usvaldo says:

    Great piece and timely as well. But how to write as an Assyrian cat from the 6th century B.C.? I don’t want to wreck the suspension of disbelief of any contemporary cat who may read what I write…???

  6. Hannah Killian says:

    Pretty much the only period put of all my stories where I can get away with modern voice is Preserving The Past, which takes place in the early 2000s.

    All the rest take place from WWII down to the later years of the 16th century.

    Then again, maybe The Bookmark, The Children & Papa Hans, and A Treasure Worth Fighting For could get away with a slightly modern voice? The first two take place during WWII and the other is in the first half of the Depression.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Just use these books as an excuse to watch lots of classic Golden-Era movies as “research.” 😉

  7. Bodil Hov says:

    It might be “cheating”, but I made it easier for myself by never announcing my time period. I believe I am justified since my novel takes place in an alternate world, and though everything does have a medieval feel to it there’s no Europe, America or other real place to connect it to. I still try to be as faithful to the time period as possible, but I also take certain liberties (like no religion).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not cheating. It’s a great way to immediately set the stage. But, at the same time, it sets up readers’ expectations for your characters to sound a certain way.

  8. As always is very useful to read you! I’m learning loads from your ebooks and from each of your posts. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!
    My mother tongue is Spanish and I’m writing in that language a story which deals with time travel so part of it is based at the beginning of the 19th century in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Vienna. Yes. I’ve been living in Germany for the past 10 years so I’m fluent in the language and this allows me to read the many letters, diaries and local press which have survived the test of time. Back then there didn’t exist a right way of writing German with orthographic rules, so people wrote and spoke as they learned the language by their parents, community and according to their level of education and region in either the Prussian or the Austro-Hungarian empires. I obviously don’t know how the Viennese spoke back then, but in general the Austrians are famous for their heavy accent (Ron Howard’s “Rush” anyone? Daniel Brühl’s Niki Lauda was not an exaggeration, he does speak like that as most of his land people do). What I am mostly struggling with in this regard is 1) Finding the translations into Spanish or its equivalent, where possible, for typical things, and 2) Whether to stick to a modern Spanish in the narration versus switching to an older version of the language in this particular piece of the story, as you also would in today’s English version the 19th century’s. I don’t want it to sound like a parody of the Spanish language of that time, imaged from the 21st century.
    I do am keeping some Viennese local words in German intact, which I’ve explained at a given point, such as “Fiaker”. But as you well advice, the story must be understood by the reader so all of those period terms or words in other languages must be either explained in their meaning or kept at a discreet amount so they don’t interfere with the narration.

  9. I found this article intteresting and challenging. Since I am a fantasy author, some of this applies and some doesn’t. What is your opinion about the use of accents in fantasy?

  10. Invaluable post as always. It will help me at the moment as I’m tackling an alternative history where the Viking Age never ended – the main story is set in 2020 with advanced airships (but no barnstorming). There are flashbacks to periods in the past where I am trying to catch a flavour of the period, partly from the writings of the time, with reservations like you suggest, but also by reading historical writers that I admire for their use of language.

    Many thanks for all the sensible advice.

  11. Truly a great post. I have written two historicals and I was told my writing was too formal. Ha! I had to go back and compromise the wording, structure, and voice to be more “likable” to a modern reader. This is the risk you take when trying to adhere to the time period. I am trying to reprise Jane Austen-like sensibilities for the modern reader. But I had to learn, I needed to make it more contemporary if I was going to appeal to today’s women. Lesson learned. Thank you again for the article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Betas are great for helping us find that balance. When more than one person is providing the same feedback, it’s a good sign we need to reevaluate.

  12. Katie, this post was quite useful and informative. I’ve always wanted to write a historical romance set in a past century. I’ll be very careful to do my research. Thank you for the reading resources to get me started. Meanwhile, I love writing Sci-Fi and had to laugh about my methodology. Since I don’t have the normal constraints in regard to the language, idioms or dialect since I’m using my imagination in creating the vocabulary of the characters, I feel free during the creative process. The funny part occurs when I’m trying to write the dialect of future Earthlings. We have so much slang in our culture, I just have to avoid using what’s popular now. I write the language as if we’ve achieved a higher intelligence. That’s the fun and laughable part I must say. Nevertheless, I will be avoiding ‘On fleek’. Lol.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Have fun! Research is limiting, of course, but it’s also a ton of fun.

  13. Sparksofember says:

    I read a book once set in early, early England – like the Romans only recently left early. Didn’t have amy problems except once – when the leaves were twirling as they fell like a Russian ballerina. Really? Lol

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Yeah, I think that’d pop my suspension of disbelief bubble too. :p

  14. Movies are also a great way to get the slang of the period. Pre-production code movies are the best (I write 1920s & 1930s). Slang often doesn’t show up in the novels of the period because the writing is more formal.

    Clark Gable’s undressing scene in It Happened One Night is hilarious as well as insightful into how men wore their clothing [there is also an urban legend out there that says Clark Gable single-handely put a stop to men wearing undershirts :-p ]

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Code-era movies are great too, since they often created their own new slang to get around the censors.

  15. My book is set in the future (2026), which carries its own restrictions. You can’t use a lot of terms that haven’t been invented yet, because no one wpuld understand them. If you do, you have to find a way to explain them. I look at Back to the Future Part II, which was released in 1989, but started out set in 2015. If they would have mentioned Facebook, Twitter, smartphones, or any other things that are commonplace now that weren’t in 1989, people would have gotten lost. You have to let your reader follow along. On a side note, I’m glad we don’t have faxes all over the place. I’m still waiting for the true hoverboard and flying cars.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good point. That’s half the fun of futuristic stories–especially when they end up being at least partially prophetic.

  16. Great post. I really liked your point on focusing on modern impressions of the original language rather than just the original language. What do you think about this discussion with regards to fantasy pieces? Do you think fantasy authors should stick to Medieval-sounding impressions, or are you fine with fantasy authors who use modern slang and such in their stories?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The awesome thing about fantasy is that we can make up our own rules. If we want our society to sound medieval-esque, we can. If not, we’re not bound to anyone’s desires but our own. However, whatever rules we create for our stories, it’s important to stick to them.

  17. Bill Ryan says:

    Certainly a problem I’m having, Katie. My historical fantasy is set in Elizabethan London so it’s easy to sound like bad Shakespeare or Yoda.

  18. I have a couple of historical characters, so this article will be great for them. The one I’m working on right now is a steampunk story set in Victorian England, and reading back through it, I could see that the voices need to be more British and Victorian. That’s a writers life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds very fun! I recommend reading books of the period (rather than just books *set* in the period) to steep yourself in the sound of the era.

  19. I love your examples early in this post.

    And everything you say here is so accurate. One of the reasons I hate most of the so-called Classics is that they are just too hard to read. The English of the times is so unlike the English we use today that they are nearly two different languages.

    I’ve never tried historical fiction, but quite a few of my friends and colleagues have. They often bring up the struggle of using accurate language as well, so even though I don’t write this genre, this is a super interesting topic.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Admittedly, I love the language in most of the old classics, but it’s definitely not something you can speed read.

  20. One question I have concerns the use of terms that were once used in polite conversation, but are now considered offensive. The one that jumps out is the N-word, but there are others. For example, if your book is set in the 1920s, do you use words like the N-word, or do you leave them out? On the one hand, you can say it’s for historical accuracy, but on the other hand, if people complain that your novel is offensive because of those terms, it could cause problems for you. Mark Twain used the N-word in Huckleberry Finn over 100 years ago, and it’s seen as controversial today. Many school systems have either banned it or restricted its use because of that word.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I read a great quote yesterday from Joyce Carol Oates. She said, “You are writing for your contemporaries not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.” Her point was that we shouldn’t be getting too big for our britches in trying to make a high-faluting impact on the Future when the Present must come first. However, I think she also makes the sidelong point that we’re not writing for previous generations either. Whatever we write, no matter when it is set, will always be interpreted through the lens of contemporary events and beliefs.

      Therefore, if we choose to use terms that are offensive to our contemporaries, we must do so with a full awareness that it will be so–and we must thus be choosing these terms to get a specific reaction from our contemporaries and/or make a comment that is as much, if not more so, about us, today, as it is about the previous period we’re writing about.

      In short, there will be a time and a place to use terms like this, but never with the same subtextual flippancy they would have been used with in previous times. (However, this also doesn’t mean we need to draw attention to the terms in ways that are not in keeping with the times. Imposing modern-day sensibilities on historical characters is always a no-no. A skillful use of subtext can offer commentary on the past without betraying either it or the contemporary understanding in which it will be read.)

  21. Jacqueline Godfrey says:

    My how I envy you the made-up story K.M. Weiland @KMWeiland!

    Whilst researching a historical figure of the 1780-1800 time-period I was oft-beset by web pages being non-re-findable or hastily taken down and I disagree with you about the ease of working and researching that era: Jane Austen is all there really is to go on and that’s It; apart that is from a sprinkling of diaries and the odd magazine or newspaper article where the date has become eroded….

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I use a lot of secondary sources in research, since I’m mostly looking for background color, rather than details about specific historical figures. Those are admittedly much easier for the average person to access. The period I was focusing on in Wayfarer was 1820, so a little later than Austen, but if you’d like to email me, I’d be happy to share my bibliography with you.

  22. Ms. Albina says:

    I love Gone with the wind but it is three hours long. I also like the Narnia movies. I think it is word to say for a book Many years ago then ago write the sentence like Many, Many, Many years ago Maia the creator goddess was born and created the twin star system in the azurlian universe.

  23. Joe Long says:

    Western Pennsylvania in the 1970’s. Not only do I use the language styles of that time period, but also work in the regional dialect. It makes it easier that it’s set in the time and place of my childhood, but I still have to do some reswearch.

    I realize I can’t go full into Pittsburghese. I have a few unique words and grammatical constructs that are used often and consistently enough to remind the readers where the story takes place without trying to point out that “wash” is pronounced “worsh”. The older and less educated the characters are, the more noticeable their dialect is.

  24. Ms. Albina says:

    I loved this article. Many, Many years ago Maia the creator goddess was born and created the twin star system in the azurlian universe or A myriad ago Maia, Maia created a twin system with nine planets and twin suns and twin moons.

  25. I’ve never tried writing anything historical but you made me think of Georgette Heyer’s old Regency romances. She captured the voice of the era in such a way that when I stopped reading, the voices of the people around me sounded all wrong.

  26. I’ve written a few short stories set in Ancient times, and intend to write some books, too. What you said about studying the original language is a great idea. I love the idea of trying to catch the rythm of the original language in the dialogue. Thus far I’ve mostly stuck to having them speak in a more formal manner and not use any modern slang. So long as the dialogue has a natural rythm to it, I don’t worry.

    Ever since discovering the Aubrey/Maturine books and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” I’ve been sorely tempted to write a book entirely in 18th century style (set in the period, of course). I know it would only be read by a niche audience, but that’s the point. I don’t know what publisher would pick it up though. If it was a Nautical tale, publishers probably wouldn’t bat an eye at the style, what with O’Brian being such a giant of the genre, but I was leaning more toward a super-hero political spy story (though doubtless I will write a nautical book someday because I’m just too in love with the 18th century British navy, haha). I don’t know. Maybe I should just keep the dialogue period flavored and the narrative more accessible, since super powers aren’t likely to appeal to that niche audience. However, historical fantasy readers might go for it. Then again, I’ve always wanted to write an epistolary novel, so perhaps I should save the period language for a story I can tell well through letters or diary entries. Hmmmm.

    Well, anyway, fantastic post as always! Thanks for the tips and food for thought!

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