Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On writing"forsoothly"

I am in the rather interesting position of just having finished, and being in the middle of, two books that take place in the same medieval time period -- the reign of Henry II of England, to be exact. It was an interesting period, to say the least, and the two writers, Ariana Franklin and Sharon Kay Penman, couldn't be more different. Ariana Franklin -- the pen name of the writer Diana Norman -- writes mysteries set in this period.  And I think they are quite good, though some readers are upset by what they think is her "historical inaccuracy"  Sharon Kay Penman writes "straight" historical fiction, and is generally very good at what she does. I will be reviewing both books shortly,so I don't want to get into the books themselves, at this point. 


Their writing styles couldn't be more different, either. Though her mysteries are all set in medieval England, her characters all speak in plain standard contemporary English.  No, I don't mean slang.  I mean standard contemporary written English.  Sharon Kay Penman, on the other hand, seems to like writing in a style that is "modern English in sentences construction, but there are places where I end up grinding my teeth at her prose and the way she makes her characters speak. This is a style that Ariana Franklin, in her notes at the end of her latest mystery, calls "gadzooks" writing.  I've heard others call it other things, including "writing forsoothly"  I myself call it "fake poetic".


This style, beloved, among others by most romance writers(at least those who write "historical" romances) and some historical novelists, has people talking in "mayhap", "'tis", "'twas", "nay", "aye" and Ms.Penman's favorite, "for certes", among others. This style also tends to include convoluted sentence structures like "On the morrow, Uncle, I shall go hunting," when she could just as easily have written "Tomorrow I will go hunting."  She also has a tendency to use "Britishisms" like "whilst", which is fine if you happen to be British, which Ms. Penman isn't.  And her "fake poetic" or "forsoothly" writing isn't consistent;  she tends to drop into more modern constructions.


I have to say I really like Penman, and so do a lot of other people.  I also know that I will probably enraged many of her devoted fans by saying this, but my criticism of this style of writing isn't directed just at Sharon Kay Penman, but at all authors who write this way, presumably to evoke an "atmosphere".  The trouble is,these sorts of language constructions owe more to Shakespeare than the medieval period; they go back basically to about the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; by the middle of the seventeenth century, they were starting to die out in English. I suspect a lot of writers who write historical fiction, set in any time previous to about the middle of the nineteenth century, just don't realize this.


I also realize that many readers of historical fiction find a strictly "mod.  ern" style just too jarring.  They actually like this kind of "forsoothly" writing, I suppose because they think it supplies the relevant "atmosphere", particularly if it is set in some period relatively remote from our own.  But you have to remember, as Ariana Franklin pointed out at the end of her latest book, English speaking people of Henry II's time spoke an English that was much closer to the language of Beowulf than to anything spoken today. So even if we had time machines at our disposal, we would just barely be able to understand what they were saying.  So the first thing a reader of any of these books has to do is suspend disbelief.  After all, that is partly what happens in almost any "genre" novel. And historical fiction is a genre.


There are better ways, in my opinion,of creating the requisite atmosphere, trying, and generally not succeeding, in writing "forsoothly". One could mention the name of types of cloth, for example. Or items of clothing which are no longer worn. Or modes of transportation. One could go on and on. This does not mean you have to bog the reader down with endless descriptions of someone's dwelling, or the construction of a castle,or the preparation of a feast,etc. This can be done quite easily by having a sentence like "Hardwin put on his woolen cloak, lined with marten fur and pinned it together with his silver cloak pin" or the like(Hardwin is the hero of my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece). This gives detail:  he wears a fur-lined cloak and pins it together.  It tells the reader they didn't have buttons in "them days".  A book set in a given period can be sprinkled throughout with details like this, giving the reader a picture of a different time and place, while allowing the characters to speak in "modern standard". The advantage of this is that it's easier to write consistently with "modern standard" than it is to go  back and forth with "forsoothly" or "fake poetic" writing.  But obviously, some writers don't see this.


Of course, this is just my personal opinion, but also personally, I don't think "style" should get in the way of "story".  And if you have characters "speaking forsoothly"  or the writer tries to write "forsoothly", I think that is exactly what such writing does.  So while I find Penman's tales to be very good reading, I wish she,and other writers who write like this, into serious consideration.

Anne G

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