On voice in historical fiction


First, a quick update on the first few days of the Clarion West write-a-thon (link goes to a page where you can sponsor me and support a noble cause.) My goal is to write and/or revise every day for six weeks, and so far so good. I’ve got a major motivator at the moment, which helps: I’ve promised to get a decent draft to a critiquer by early July. So I’m doing my utmost to get this draft done within the next week or so.

One of the things I’m doing in this draft, and will probably pay even closer attention to on the final polish before submitting, is whether the language ever takes the reader out of the time period.

This is TOUGH. It requires a million small choices. I am not writing the book as a pastiche of how people wrote in 1703, because unless you’re Susanna Clarke, pastiche is hard to pull off, and anyway by the time you get as far back as 1703 and thereabouts, the style is so different as to be very off-putting to the casual modern reader. (Well, unless it’s Tristram Shandy. But I wouldn’t even want to risk profaning that through failed imitation.)

Here, for example, is the opening line of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which is a whiz-bang-pow adventure novel:

My true name is so well known in the records or registers at Newgate, and in the Old Bailey, and there are some things of such consequence still depending there, relating to my particular conduct, that it is not be expected I should set my name or the account of my family to this work; perhaps, after my death, it may be better known; at present it would not be proper, no not though a general pardon should be issued, even without exceptions and reserve of persons or crimes.

That style is just fine for a paragraph but it gets tedious after two or three, and a whole book would just be no fun at all.

So I am not writing in the style of the 17th or 18th centuries.

But I’m not writing in a nakedly 21st century style, either. I’ve tried to keep dialogue, in particular, as free of anachronistic vocabulary as possible. (I’m going to do a search for “hello” on the final edit to make sure I haven’t unthinkingly used it.)

I have made some choices, though, where I thought avoiding anachronism would pointlessly confuse the reader. For example, “lace” in my period didn’t mean fine needlework; more often it meant tassels or what we would call “laces.” But if I used “lace” that way, it would be very confusing, as the meaning is close enough to today’s that it’s hard to just throw the word into a sentence and hope the context makes it clear.

I’ve chosen to use a few 17th or 18th century words that will be unfamiliar to many readers, but whose meaning is easily made clear from the context, and which appear more than once so they become part of the worldbuilding of the novel: “swive” and “chandlery” come to mind. And “mercury” in the sense of “go-between, messenger” but that’s explained outright.

I’m aiming, more or less, for the kind of middle path that Hilary Mantel struck in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

This is one reason my novel has to be set in 3rd person rather than 1st. It allows me to get into my protagonist’s head, and sometimes use the language he would, in moments when I don’t want any psychic distance between him and the reader. But it also allows me enough distance to write in a cadence that won’t give my readers headaches.  I chose a fairly close 3rd person, and a single point of view character, because I wanted the experience of reading the book to be immersive and fast. Writing in an 18th-century style would have made that very hard to manage.