There are so many moving parts when writing historical fiction. Not only are there the normal things—like character development and story structure—but there is all the historical research needed in order to put the reader firmly in a different time and place. What is often forgotten? The words themselves.
The use of language in historical fiction can pull the reader further into the historical moment or yank them back into present day quicker than you can say time-travel. A historical story told in completely modern language sounds dissident to the mind, much like an out-of-tune singer to the ear.
But, you say, my readers are modern. They understand modern language.
True. However, with a few judicious uses of language, you can tell your story in a way that enhances instead of detracts from the historical world you’ve created. Let’s look at a few ideas for making that happen.
Etymology is the history of words. Yes, it is another research rabbit hole you can fall into, but it is a valuable resource for giving your historical fiction an authentic feel.
By seeking out the history of a word, we learn so many things:
Obviously you wouldn’t do this for every word in your story. That would be time-consuming and, well, crazy. But it helps to use this tool for words significant to your story. You’ll be surprised at some words you thought were recently added to language—and others that didn’t appear in use until much later than you imagined! Not only does this knowledge help you capture your time period more accurately, it can force you to get creative in figuring out how to word different elements in your story.
You can find etymology several ways. etymoline.com is a helpful option. A good dictionary, online or physical, often tells the history of a word. And a dictionary from your time period is pure gold!
When writing historical fiction, we tend to unconsciously slip in similes and metaphors which fall outside the scope of our historical time period. We tend to want to compare things to the things we know. But a historical character might not have known that thing that springs so quickly to your modern mind.
Use your research to gather images or experiences that would be familiar to your characters in their time and place. To find these, think about words or actions associated with:
Keeping an eye out for such things during your research phase can help you create unique and time-period appropriate images for comparison. Not only will you amplify the comparison, you will also give greater insight into the world of that location and era.
Two authors who I think do this very well are Geraldine Brooks and Laura Frantz. Both put you in their time and place with language as well as detail. They don’t “overdo” the historical language, but they insert it in ways that keep you in that story’s historical world through dialogue, description, and narrative.
Whenever you read in historical fiction, pay close attention to the storytelling language. Does it assist the historical feel of the book? Does it detract from it? Is it too much? Is it not enough? Studying the work of others always helps us in our own writing.
The final key for using the words of your novel to help convey the overall world is to practice. We think in 21st century language because that’s what we use most often. So how do you get your brain to start storytelling in the language of another time period?
One of my favorite exercises to help with this is to take a paragraph or two of a contemporary novel and change it to read as if it were from your historical novel. Try it for yourself and see if it gets you thinking in more historical words and images.
The bottom line is this: you want every piece of your historical novel to immerse the reader in its time and place, even the words you use to tell the tale.
D'Ann Mateer has loved the marriage of history and fiction since she first began reading. Armed with a B.A. in history from Southern Methodist University, she has authored four traditionally published historical novels first under the name Anne Mateer which are now re-releasing under her given name, D’Ann Mateer. She is currently writing for the upcoming Guideposts’ series Secrets From Grandma’s Attic.
D’Ann is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Writers’ League of Texas, and Historical Novel Society. She enjoys helping other writers through freelance editing, judging writing contests, and teaching online classes. D'Ann and her husband, Jeff, enjoy reading, exploring historical sites and historical homes, and spending time with their grown children—and now grandchildren! D'Ann and Jeff live in the Dallas area.
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