Writerly Wednesdays: Anachronism

I am going to be launching a new feature on this blog: Writerly Wednesdays. I’m aware that this blog is historical–my aim all along has been to fill this blog up with information, avoiding pointless and personal posts as much as possible. But this blog was also prompted by my interest in writing. I’ve made brief mention previously of the (unpublished) novel I wrote about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, and a bit about my latest historical interest, Antebellum America. So, I thought I’d spice up the blog by writing a bit about, well, writing.

First, a bit about myself: I’ve been “writing” since I was old enough to spell. I wrote some fantasy and historical fare in high school (none of which was anywhere near publishable) and took part in a creative writing living-learning program while in college. I wrote mostly historical stuff, and began researching and writing about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace while still in school. I finished that project a few years later, while completing a Master’s degree. Now I’ve shopped it around with a few nibbles (four partial requests from agents, no takers) but no success. I’ve been focusing for the last two years or so on my most recent project, which as I mentioned is set in Antebellum America (specifically Washington City and the Sea Islands of Georgia). I completed the first draft on New Year’s Day and have been editing it in fits and starts since then.

So, those are my credentials. Let’s move on.

I write historical fiction, obviously. The thrill of it, for me, is creating a world that’s both entirely real and entirely in my head (I find myself, like any good Millennial, reminded of Harry Potter: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”). The real part is obvious, especially when I’m writing about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. The part that’s in my head is all the in-betwen stuff, the images and sounds and tastes that can’t be conveyed by nonfiction because–sadly–those things have vanished into the past.

But how true can we (historical fiction writers) be to the past? After all, a novel is no less artificial than a movie set. It’s an illusion. Move sets have the advantage of being seen: people believe what they see, but it’s harder to convince them of the illusion with just words.

It’s the historical fiction writer’s job to make the illusion seem real, accurate even.

We can never be entirely accurate. In a recent discussion of the matter over at Absolute Write, one poster commented that if a single anachronism showed up in his work, then he and his editor weren’t doing their jobs. (The discussion was in the context of etymological accuracy–using only the words that were in use at the time period you’re writing about, and using them only in the sense that they were used then.)

I’m not sure it’s possible to write a thoroughly non-anachronistic novel, and even if it were, I don’t think it’s desirable. I’m not just talking about accuracy; that’s a given. You have to get the dates, names, social norms, clothing, and food right. You have to use the proper terms for things. But this is more about the language being used than the meaning the words convey.

If a historical novel is going to be successful, it has to blend modern and historical words, meanings, and syntax. Even if it were possible to be 100% accurate, you’d lose your audience. If you were writing about ancient Rome, you’d technically have to use Latin. If you were writing about Shakespeare, you’d have to use Shakespearean language, and unless you’re the Bard, that just isn’t going to do it for a modern reader.

Then again, you’ll blow the illusion if you’re too modern. I don’t just mean throwing around obviously modern phrases like, “that’s so cool”, or even less-obvious ones like “okay” in a setting prior to circa 1840. It’s sentence structure. It’s rhythm. It’s diction. This can be deceptively simple. An example from my Affair of the Diamond Necklace novel:

Nicolas engaged me in some pleasant conversation, drawing me out about where I had gotten my fan and to which couturiers I was a client.

There are a few particulars to point out here. First, the obvious: word choice. We’re talking about fans and couturiers, which immediately tells you something about when and where we are.  Nicolas also “engages” the narrator Nicole in conversation. This isn’t necessarily the word that one would use in the 21st century. Second, sentence structure. The first clause is simple enough: subject, verb, reflexive pronoun, prepositional phrase. That basic structure could have been used in 1785, and it can be used today. What’s out of the ordinary is the phrase “to which couturiers I was a client”. In modern English, we tend to end with, gasp, a preposition (not recommended by some grammarians). That would make the phrase “which couturiers I was a client to”. People in the 18th century didn’t necessarily rearrange phrases to avoid ending them with propositions (the French certainly didn’t!). But–and it’s a big but–it seems like they would have.

Finally, and this is a more general point, this is obviously a “translation”. In 18th-century France, they did not speak English (not to one another, at least–surely, many Frenchmen and -women knew English). So the entirety of the story I wrote is an artifice in that sense. To put my reader firmly in the right time and place, I’ve transmuted 18th-century French into 18th-century English. I could “translate” into modern English just as easily–after all, what they spoke sounded modern to them. In that sense, it would be more “accurate” to have them speak modern English. Why should 18th-century French necessarily be translated into 18th-century English? It can be, of course. But can you imagine how strange that would seem? It’s good to keep in mind that the choice to use slightly archaic language is in fact a choice and part of the artifice.

This process doesn’t cause massive problems when it’s the 18th century. Most of us are relatively familiar and comfortable with the language from the time. Sure, the sentences could get a bit convoluted, but we don’t have trouble reading Jefferson like we have trouble reading Shakespeare or (heaven forbid) Mallory. It becomes a much larger problem if the setting is a time and place where there was no English equivalent, or the language is missing almost entirely.

How do you get the right tone? Well, you fake it. Like an artist employing perspective to give the illusion of depth, a writer uses word choice to create the illusion of time and place. You have to equate it to the right type of English. Royals with lots of money? The Queen’s English. Peasants in the fields? Something looser and less formal, with contractions.

Formality has a lot to do with how a setting comes across. Many people seem to think that everyone in the past spoke with unrelenting formality. This is partially because all that comes down to us is written records, and people don’t speak the same way they write. And it’s partially because many people simply aren’t familiar with the language that was used. If you read enough of it, if you begin to absorb the rhythms and nuances, you’ll find the humanity there. The more you read, also, the more you’re able to reproduce a semblance of those words. To really write it, you have to understand it, and to understand it you have to read it–a lot.

That, I think, is the primary message to any and all would-be historical writers like myself–familiarize yourself so deeply with the time period that its language literally oozes out of you and onto the page. It’s true that some people have a tin ear and might never pick it up, but . . . what business do they have being writers?

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