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 is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. Do you have any advice for what I should research? I’m planning on writing a novel in the 17th century and, so far, I’ve found slang used at that time, but I’m not certain what they used and what they didn’t. For example: when No was first used instead of nay… etc.
    There are plenty of novels set during medieval time so I can easily write that language, but there isn’t much set during the Restoration time period. Thoughts?

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  1. […] Jo Eberhardt examines perspective and authorial voice, K.M. Weiland explores how to write in an authentic historical voice, and Mary Kole shows how to create children’s books with readaloud […]

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