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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
For help in identifying common mistakes and myths, start by checking out the following fun reads:
- Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders by Susanne Alleyn
- What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank by Krista D. Ball
- Hustlers, Harlots, and Heroes by Krista D. Ball
- What Jane Austen Ate and Dickens Knew by Daniel Poole
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.
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.
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.