Do’s, Don’ts and Do Nots: What Would They Have Said?
One of my pet peeves is when historical novels have characters speaking in 21st-century language. I can’t believe in a character if I keep thinking, “They wouldn’t have said that.”
My novel A Position in Paris is set in France in 1919, but almost all of the characters are British. They speak English. British English. But they don’t exactly speak the British English we speak today. They sound more formal, maybe even stilted, to our ears—especially James, the wounded army officer, who is from a titled family, because their language is also an indicator of their class.
For example, here is some dialogue between Edmund, James’s secretary, and Parkin, James’s sixty-year-old valet, from Edmund’s journal:
Parkin has done so much for me that on an impulse I said, “Why don’t you take your afternoon? I will stay with the colonel. I don’t think I ought to go home just yet, anyway. He may feel better later and want to give me more work.”
“Oh, I couldn’t ask you to stay with him by yourself, Mr. Vaughan.”
“Well, there’s personal things he wouldn’t want you doing.”
Parkin uses a lot of contractions: “couldn’t,” “wouldn’t,” “there’s.” He makes a grammatical mistake: “there’s personal things.” Edmund says “don’t” but rarely uses other contractions, and he says “don’t” more often when he’s speaking to Parkin than to James. His language is more “correct,” according to the rules of the time.
Almost all of the story is from journal entries of the two main characters, so it’s all in their voice. In most novels, only the dialogue is in the characters’ voice. So I had to be extra careful with the language. It’s not always easy, because something modern might creep in, but I do read a lot of novels written in the first half of the 20th century so I’ve developed an ear for the way they wrote and spoke at the time . . . I hope.
I understand why an author might want to use 21st-century language for characters from an earlier century. It makes it easier for readers to understand. We translate foreign languages, after all—I do that myself in this book. I don’t use the French words (or hardly ever) when my characters are speaking French, because I know a lot of my readers wouldn’t understand them.
And if I was writing something set in Shakespearean England, would I try to write the dialogue in Shakespearean English? No, that would be too weird. I’m not familiar with it, and nor is the average reader. I’d just try not to have characters use words that had a completely different meaning back then.
So why not “translate” the language in all historical novels into 21st-century English? Why not have characters say “awesome” and talk about their egos?
I guess because it throws me right out of the story when I read something like that myself. Plus I think that modernizing the language of most historical novels is patronizing to readers. We can surely understand the language of one hundred years ago, can’t we?
Mistakes can slip in, I know. Despite careful editing by myself and professional editors, you may spot something in A Position in Paris that shouldn’t be there. Please tell me if you do, and I’ll change it in updates.
I did just run a search of the final draft for the words “awesome” and “ego,” and I’m glad to say I didn’t find them :)
Megan Reddaway's novel A Position in Paris was published on August 20th.
Length: 65,000 words approx.
Cover Design: Natasha Snow
Edmund Vaughan can’t turn down the chance to be secretary to the wealthy James Clarynton. He’s been out of work since the armistice, and his mother and brother depend on him. But he has secrets to hide, and the last thing he wants is an employer who keeps asking questions.
As they work together, their respect for each other grows, along with something deeper. But tragedy threatens, and shadows from the past confront them at every turn. They must open their hearts and trust each other if they are to break down the barriers that separate them.
A heartwarming romance with some dark moments along the way.
August 20 - Megan's Media Melange, August 22 - Joyfully Jay, Amy's MM Romance Reviews, Urban Smoothie Read, August 24 - Love Bytes, August 25 - Gay Book Reviews, August 27 - Padme's Library, August 28 - The Novel Approach, August 29 - Sexy Erotic Xciting, Mirrigold, Lillian Francis, Bayou Book Junkie, BooksLaidBareBoys, Virginia Lee, August 30 - Diverse Reader
MEGAN REDDAWAY lives in England and has been entertained by fictional characters acting out their stories in her head for as long as she can remember. She began writing them down as soon as she could.
Since she grew up, she has worked as a secretary, driver, barperson, and article writer, among other things. Whatever she is doing, she always has a story bubbling away at the same time.
For news of Megan’s gay romance releases and two free stories, visit her website:http://meganreddaway.com
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