Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Thursday, July 9, 2009

On "writing forsoothly"

On one of the e-mail forums I visit, there has recently been a discussion about the use of archaic or "period" language in historical novels. I should make it clear, that  what I'm writing is not, strictly speaking, a "historical novel", though it does take place in "historical time". And it's centered around very real events, and has very real people in it.  That said, due to the nature of the documentation of this particular early medieval period, there has been a lot that I've just had to guess at and quite frankly, make up. On the other hand, I'm doing my best, in rewriting the first draft of my first book(it's a romantic science fiktion trilogy), to get the historical events at the very least, in the right order, and have the real people(and their fictional allies and enemies), in the right place at the right time.  Some of the events are a little confusing,and I haven't been able to find or create a straightforward timeline to help me out. 


Be that as it may, I am not writing in what some people call "forsoothly" style.  I don't find it very pleasing; to me, it is just a distraction from the story. By "forsoothly", or "gadzooks" or what I call "fake poetic", I mean a deliberately "archaic" way of writing, using lots of "nay", "aye" "ere", "tis", "twas", unnecessarily convoluted sentence structure, unnecessarily formal usages such as "upon" for "on",and so on. Incidentally, one well-known romance writer has labeled this sort of language "twisy-twasery", which I think describes it perfectly. 


People who write about, say, Elizabethan England might be able to get away with this kind of "twisy-twasery", because that was the way people tended to talk(especially if they had a reasonable education for the day); on the other hand, the writers who have tried this haven't generally been very successful at it. There's just too much of a gap between today's spoken English, and the English of Shakespeare's time. Again, in my opinion, it's best to leave this kind of "twisy-twasery" to Shakespeare,who at least knew what he was doing.


Go a few hundred years ahead to, say, the time ofthe American Revolution. Again, some people have tried to reproduce eighteenth century language for modern readers, and again, most  people have not succeeded very well.  One exception is the book Octavian Nothing, which was deliberately written this way for a purpose.  The author relied heavily on various writings and journals of that time, which are quite abundant.  But this is exceptional , because the rhythms of the speech of that day, no longer really exist in modern spoken or written English.  Sentence structure has become far less convoluted, words that were common 200 years ago have dropped out of the language, people don't wear powdered wigs any more, etcetera.  And we're talking, in both cases, about forms of what is considered "modern" English.  The English language(and other languages as well) have evolved quite rapidly in the last 500-250 years!  We have things like computers, which were unheard of 500-250 years ago, just to give an example. The word "biology" hadn't been "invented" yet(the scientist Lamarck was supposed to have invented it.


So the reader can see why I,for one, don't want to use this "twisy-twasery" in my Great Medieval Science Fiktion Masterpiece With Neandertals.  It doesn't take place 250 or 500 years ago, but nearer 1,000!  And the "English" people spoke then, was convoluted, all right.  It had a grammar and sentence structure more like German(which language has also changed a lot).  No one nowadays would be able to understand it for the most part, so why use "archaism" to suggest it?


I don't know, but some authors do, even when they're writing about a period where the language spoken would have been more or less incomprehensible to a modern speaker of that language.  And some readers seem to like this convention.  I suppose, as one of the participants in the discussion pointed out, it's a matter of taste. Readers who aren't writers might not notice these "conventions" quite so much.  No, they might not notice them at all, especially if the writer is also a good storyteller.  Which is important, and I will get to that shortly.


But writers, once they actually begin to write, start noticing these things.  It's an important part of the process of learning to write.  And it annoys some of them, including me.  From my point of view,if you want to transport people to a different time and place,whether it is 1000, 500, or 250 years(or even back in, say, the 1960's), there are better ways of doing this.  Describe the houses, the clothes people wore, mention the important people and events and how your characters react to them.  You don't have to dwell on this, just sprinkle these tidbits throughout your narrative!  Besides, as an author I quoted pointed out in an earlier post, people speaking to one another in an earlier time, sounded "contemporary" to each other! 


Still, to some readers, who "expect" characters living in historical times to "talk historical", writing in what I kill "modern standard" might be jarring.  To them, I can only say two things:  first, I'm not writing a strictly "historical" novel(it's really a type of science fiktion), and second, because it's something of a "hybrid", I don't exactly see why I should write "twisy-twasery"(I really like that phrase).  Yes, to a reader, this is a matter of taste, I suppose.  For a writer, some stylistic conventions are just too jarring.  This is one of them.

Anne G

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