Redheaded Neanderlady

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

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Opinions, please, gentle readers!

On a writer’s site where I have a version of the first book in my trilogy uploaded(with great difficulty, I might add), I also do reviews and critiques of some people’s work.  I do a fair amount of reviewing sci-fi/fantasy, and some historical novels, since The Invaders is a hybrid – of sorts – or both genres. 

Which brings me to my dilemma, the one I want opinions about. I’ve noticed a tendency on the part of some writers of historical novels, to use “old” place names instead of their “modern” equivalents.  I can understand the reasoning behind this: in Anglo-Saxon times, for example, the city of York was called something like Eorferwic or Jorvik(by Viking-era Scandinavians who traded there).  The problem for me is, such usage may turn out to be very confusing for the average modern reader.  And yet some readers of historical novels actually prefer this.  Again, the reasoning behind this preference seems to be that it is more “authentic” to give the “old” place name, because that was what was used at the time, rather than the modern one, regardless of whatever confusion a reader may feel. I think, too, these writers(and a fair number of readers who may know more than “average” about whatever historical period the novel is set in), want what they feel is consistency here.  They don’t want what they feel are “modern” attitudes seeping into their novels, and if this means using “old” place names, so be it.

And I can understand that, too.  I used to read a lot of romance novels, and got rather disgusted with the historical ones, when the writers would use out-of-period, or obviously made-up names that no one in that period of time would ever have used, or had things like castles in the wrong places or times(I actually started critiquing a historical novel that was set in a time when there weren’t essentially, any castles.  This woman appears to have had serious problems, because she got all upset when I mentioned this to her, and I never did find anything out about her novel.  I suppose you can credit my anthropology background for some of this sensitivity; names tend to “belong with” periods and “ethnic” groups.  Names make the people of such ethnic groups and/or time periods instantly recognizable as who or what they are. 

I also understand that many writers think that their readers want easy-to-swallow history lessons, because they fear history is not taught in their schools or in their country, particularly well.  In this, they are right, but I’m not sure that this kind of attention to detail is going to “teach”  the reader anything he or she really wants to know. If they really want to  learn about “what really happened”, there are libraries, and the interested reader will probably be interested enough to get such details about the period, on their own.  I did much of my own research this way: I knew a little bit about Neandertals before I started writing(they existed in the past), and nothing at all about earlier medieval England, except a vague blur of events.  I had enough sense to want to get it “right”.  At the same time, though, I did not want to burden any potential readers with a lot of  facts; rather, I wanted to give a flavor of the times, as accurately as possible, while at the same time telling an interesting, and hopefully compelling, story.  I hope some  potential readers will be interested enough to do their own research, and if they’re really dedicated, write their own novels.  That, I think, is the best any writer, even of a “hybrid” genre like mine, can do.

Which brings me to my dilemma.  Well, I guess it isn’t really a dilemma, at least not for me.  I don’t use “old” place names; I think the extra possible authenticity(and I have come to the conclusion that authenticity is as much in the mind of the writer as it is “factual”) is negated by the possible confusion to the reader – even if that confusion is, to some extent mitigated by a glossary or end notes of some kind.  So I use modern place names.  I also avoid expressions like “ere”, “nay” “mayhap”, etc. like the plague.  For me, these particular words may well have been used in “olden” times, but the problem is, the people living in “olden” times, sounded just as modern, to themselves, as we do now.  I am fairly sure that at least some of those who could read, might have found “olden” language used in their time, stilted and unnatural. 

By the same token, then, I use what I call “modern standard” English for dialogue(indicating when people are speaking some other language when necessary). No, I don’t use slang, though I do try to add “flavor” by using expressions that were probably used in that time period. I realize a  number of writers, and readers, would disagree with me here.  I also know that some very fine writers, who have immersed themselves in a particular period, are happy to use a “flavor” of “olde-timey” language, just the way some writers use, or think they can use, “dialect”(the number of people who try to imitate Scots is really unbelievable, and they never get anywhere close to the real thing). Yes, this may be less “authentic” in some ways, but I think it’s more important to suggest authenticity in other ways.  A writer can, for example, flavor their character’s thoughts about things by, for example, contrasting the common way of thinking about, say, Native Americans, in the 18th century, with their own, if their own attitudes happen to be different for any reason(maybe they were brought up in Quaker households, for example).  They can describe clothing and buildings in some detail.  They can, without overpowering the reader, describe what kinds of medical treatments were available.  And so on.  The astute reader will ”get the picture” if they’re alert enough.  And as I said earlier, if they’re really interested, they might read more about the period and the people of that period, especially if information is abundant.

In other words, my primary concern is, telling an interesting story, while keeping any historical side as accurate as possible. I’m not here to give a history lessen, especially in view of the fact that what I’m writing is kind of a hybrid(I call it “romantic science fiction set in medieval England” for lack of any other way of describing it).  As there is also “prehistoric” detail involved(which is a whole other area of research), I’ve “flavored” the book with that as well. But again, my purpose isn’t, per se, to give a lecture no the course of human evolution. If people are sufficiently interested, they will also do research on this, for themselves.  Therefore, I’ am not so “historically obsessed” as some, but I’m not going to lie about anything that “happened”; I’m going to get as much “right” as

possible, but that simply weaves in and out of the story I’m telling. 

Which, when push comes to shove, I am inviting comment here.  What do you think?  How accurate do you need to be in a situation like mine. Remember, that although I’m writing what I call “romantic science fiction set in medieval England”, I am most definitely not writing a romance, although there are some perfectly delightful romance writers out there, who write in “historical time”. I’m must writing “my” story.  And I try to pay attention to the historical side, without letting it overwhelm me.  So I will part by once again asking, what do you guys out there think?

Anne G


Anonymous said...

Hi Anne,
As long as your use of old vs modern place names, character names, "slang" is concistent, and does not violate the understandable chronology of your story, I see no problem with it. For example, I would NOT base a story involving Patriots and Tories (circa American Revolution) in Texas or the American Southwest; wouldn't be prudent. Otherwise, it is your tell it. Thanks! JwK

Nan Hawthorne, Shield-wall Books said...

As both a writer and a reader I generally prefer the contemprary name -- contemporary to the story, that is. However, I will want a list of the names and their equivalents.

I am running into a bit of a similar dilemma with famous historical figures' names.. for instance, is it Stephen of Vlois or Etienne de Blois? My sense of integrity says "call them what they called themselves" but at the same time... will I sound priggish? Or like I am showing off? And am I sure the current French holds for 1101?

Nan Hawthorne


Anne Gilbert said...

Nan and all:

I know a great many readers who like historical novels, especially if they know,(or feel they know) the period they are reading about, claim to prefer "old" place names and "old" spellings of people's names. Some writers prefer this, too. Bernard Cornwell is the most prominent example of this. But many other readers find this practice confusing, even if there is a glossary with the modern place names. For me anything that interrupts the flow of the narrative like this, is confusing at best and annoying or more than annoying at worst. It's not that I don't know that York was Jorvik or Eorferwic at one time, but unless the average reader is very well versed in Anglo-Saxon history, they won't be. Furthermore, what is a reader going to do when they are confronted with a name like Aelfheah?(modern Elphick, just FYI). If you use "old" spellings like this, the modern reader will probably have no clue how to pronounce them. This might not be important to you, but it is important to many readers, and that includes some readers who like historical novels. Which is why I prefer to use the modern spellings, no matter how "jarring" they may seem to some. Uninterrupted flow of narrative is important enough for me to avoid this kind of usage, no matter how "popular" it is in some quarters, and I feel very strongly about this.

Finally, since my novel isn't strictly speaking, entirely "historical", though it takes place in historical time, around very real events, I don't feel quite as some historical novelists do, that I must conform to some of these apparently emerging conventions. Since my novel is a hybrid anyway, I know I probably won't please everybody who reads it, and, quite frankly, there's no point in trying. My preference, as far as "authenticity" goes, is to suggest it by other means(e.g. diescriptions of housing, clothing, perhaps some figures of speech, etc.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...


YOur "name dilemma" is interesting, but it's one of the reasons why I prefer to use the names known to modern people. Like older forms of English, there were most likely no spelling rules in Old French. "Stephan of Vlois"? That might confuse some people. "Etienne de Blois"(if you really want to be "correct", would just sound "precious" to ohers. Go with "Stephen of Blois" and you'll avoid a lot of reader confusion.
Anne G