Today I’m going to continue last week’s post on language in historical fiction. You’d think that after deciding what to do about foreign words in your novel, you’re pretty much safe. You can just write the rest of your novel in regular English, right? Well, not exactly.
A few years ago, an editor critiquing one of my historical novels said she felt the characters sounded too contemporary. Specifically, she had a problem with their use of contractions. I eventually chose to leave most of the dialogue intact, but her comments made me think: How do you translate a foreign language into English so that it sounds right for the time period? In other words, how do you make your characters understandable without making them sound too modern?
Almost all writers will agree that modern slang has no place in historical novels, but there are many areas where language is much fuzzier. For example, in any language, there are ways for people to drop syllables, run words together, and in general speak more casually than they do in formal situations. Are these speech patterns contractions as we understand them in English? Probably not. But in a novel written in English, I do feel they can translate into contractions on the page. Still, I don’t use contractions as liberally in historical novels as I would in a contemporary setting. I also find that overall, my historical characters tend to sound a little more stilted.
So what’s the best way to handle these language problems in historical fiction? How do you communicate that your characters are regular people speaking in a casual setting without making them sound too much like modern Americans? It’s quite a dilemma, but I’m sure there are many ways to solve it. What do you think?
Melissa L. is the YA Editorial Assistant for Wonders and Marvels. You can read more about her here: Editorial Staff.