Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

I hate to sound like a broken record, but. . . .

The conversation on one of my e-mail lists, regarding historical accuracy in historical novels, sputters on from time to time.  It seems to be dying down for the moment, but something will cause it to flare up again.  I'm not out to change anyone's mind about how you balance "accuracy" with "story".  And quite frankly, I'm really glad I'm not a "straight" historical novelist.  I'm just not that obsessively detailed, I'm afraid, though when I have a historical setting, I feel it's necessary to keep that setting as reasonably accurate as possible. 


What prompted this blog was a discussion of use, not just of "olde tymey" language(much of which is kind of "fake" anyway), but attempts by some writers to add "authenticity" or "flavor" by using words and expressions common in whatever time period they're writing about.  You might be able to get away with this if you're writing, in English, about, say, medieval Russia.  A Russian writer might confuse his or her audience, though, because the meaning of words has a weasely way of changing over time.  This is true in all languages, not just Russian or English. And that brings me to the problem in using "period" language. 


On another e-mail list, one writer explained that they used the word "computer" in a seventeenth-century English setting.  It seems there was certainly a word "computer" then.  But "computer" in 17th century England didn't mean what it means today, although the meanings are related, in a way(this is almost always true of changes in the meanings of words).  Back then, a "computer" was a person that we would now refer to as an "accountant" or a "bookkeeper".  In other words, an actual, living person, not a machine.  The person's agent said that the writer should substitute some other word for "computer" in this context, because the "old" meaning would confuse a modern reader.  And the agent was right. 


I can understand the desire for writers of historical fiction to "get it right", often down to these last, rather minor-appearing details.  Sometimes, use of "period" language works, but as I've said elsewhere, that's relatively rare, and such language should be used with caution, for precisely the reasons I've shown in the "computer" example.  This is hardly the only kind of change the English language has seen: the word "booze" goes back at least to Elizabethan times, and it meant liquor(usually beer or ale) then, and it has a similar meaning now.  But has anybody ever heard of a "boozing ken"?  Probably not, unless they've invented a time machine and gone back to sixteenth-century London or some such.  We would now use the term "bar" or "tavern" for such a place.  Yet "boozing ken" is what people called places where they served drink and not much else, back then.  There were words like "punk", too.  But "punk" doesn't have the same meaning now as it did then.  If you don't clarify, or aren't willing to be fairly sparing of such usage, you do risk confusing readers. 


Some historical writers know, that a good percentage of their readers won't even care, and are just interested in a really good story(this is, by the way, one reason why I think "story" needs to come first).  This does not mean the writer should be careless; he or she can do the job of "instructing" as well as "entertaining" in their novel.  But there is another  subset of readers(and sometimes writers), who claim to know a particular period well, and tend to look through some  book more or less just to spot inaccuracies.  It is probably these folk the writers who use(or perhaps overuse) "period" language may be aiming to please.  Which, I think, is a hopeless task.  Because, as I said, the use of "period" language rarely works as intended, and more seriously, the writer, writing in the present, from the point of view of the present, isn't taking into consideration the ways in which language changes over time.  And if they don't, they risk losing readership, or at the very least, having a very narrow audience.  Maybe that's all some of them want.  I don't know.  But I think most of us, as writers, would like to have a broad, appreciative audience, and that sometimes means making compromises for comprehensibility.


'Nuff said,

Anne G

No comments: