Friday, October 22, 2010

Say what?

As we all know, historical authors agonize over the details.
We spend countless hours researching details for each book even though it sometimes feels like we’re the only ones who will care. For instance, questions that pop up on loops and forums have ranged from what’s the most common breed of sheep in 15th century Scotland to who was the most expensive tailor in Regency London. Both of which are small details that could be easily written around.
In trying to make my books as authentic as possible, I’ve learned how to make beer, medieval-style, counted the steps between a dozen cathedrals and castles, and peered inside too many garderobes to count get a sense of how they worked and figure out if someone could actually crawl up one to storm a castle.
But what other authors and I often agonize over—and what no amount of research will ever really give us—is the language our characters actually used.
During the 12th century, the time period I write, The Scottish/English borders were home to people descended from Saxon, Viking, Celts, and Normans (Vikings Round 2). Local dialects and accents were common (the traces of which can still be heard today) and few people outside the nobility traveled far from their place of birth. So it’s possible that someone from Carlisle had trouble understanding someone from Tyneside.
Fast-forward 800 years and we’re mostly reduced to gestures.
For instance, William of Ravenglas, the 12th century hero of ENTHRALLED didn’t inhale; he sucked in air. A century later he might have inbreathed. Just for the record, he could exhale in the 16th century, but wouldn’t inhale for nearly two hundred more years.
And as with any good hero, William definitely cysses Amilia, the heroine, but several hundred years will pass before he actually kisses her. And though he’s English, he won’t be snogging anyone until the 1950s. Of course, he could wreche havoc, upbrixle someone who was rude to a lady and still get off Skot-free if he became brath when the apology was slow to come.
I could go on, but you get the gist (my hero wouldn’t).
So as I sifted through revisions on Enthralled, which comes out today, I ended up having William inhale his breath and kiss his lady. When having to choose between the right word and the recognizable word, I picked the familiar one (as long as it wasn't jarringly modern). I want my readers to enjoy the story, not reach for the dictionary.
How about you? As a writer of historical novels, how do you solve the dilemma of readability vs. accuracy?
Keena Kincaid writes 12th century romances with paranormal elements. If transported back in time, according to the OED and the OED Historical Thesaurus, she would be little in the 12th century, but Henry VIII’s courtiers would have called her untall.


Judith Arnopp said...

I always enjoy your blog and appreciate the time and effort you put into it.
Personally, I think that too much historical detail can get in the way of the story, which, to me,should take precedence, we area after all story tellers. It is easy for an overindulgence of detail to smack of 'showing off'. My own books are mainly set in Anglo Saxon Britain, I make sure I know the era/subject matter enough to move freely through that world but to me the emotions and psyche of the characters is the primary thing. I give enough detail to show the reader where and when they are but I dont describe each article of clothing or every room they enter, I let the reader embellish the scene in their own way.
Of course there are lots of people who love to experience the minutae of medieval life and dont mind the diluting effect it has on the action. As in every aspect of life we are all different and there is room for all types and styles.

Mona Risk said...

Keena, congratulations on the release of Enthralled. It's going on my list to buy. I don't write historicals but love to read them. It's my best relaxation.

Of course I wouldn't like to interrupt my reading and reach for the dictionnary. I was told by my editor that when my foreign hero talks with an accent to have him lose the accent by the first third of the book to avoid distracting the reader who should concentrate on the story not on the writing.

Shawna Thomas said...

I don't write historical romance but I love this post!

As a reader, having to look up a word or reread the passages to try and gain it's meaning from context, takes you out of the story.

So while being historically accurate helps set the scene, lines must be drawn.

Thanks for an awesome blog post!

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Judith.

It's hard to draw the line sometimes between too much detail and not enough. Way thing I've done to add historical flavor without giving the minute descriptions of the room or the clothes is to have the hero or heroine do something during internal dialogue. For instance, in my first book Anam Cara, the heroine is brewing beer while trying to figure out what she's going to do with the hero. The scene ended up a nice mix of action and thought, and readers got an idea how beer was brewed in the 12th century.

Keena Kincaid said...

My editor tells me to tone down the accents, too.

Keena Kincaid said...

Thanks so much for your post. I love getting a reader's perspective on this.

Maggi Andersen said...

I agree, Keena. I want to take my readers into a different world where my characters live and the story evolves. But I know it's not really like Regency or Georgian England, it's fiction. The trick is to avoid anything glaringly modern which jogs the reader out of the story.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Keena,

As a reader, I'm glad you chose the more familiar looking versions of the words. I hate to stop reading a story for any reason, and in this one, the pages just kept turning. I love your eloquent writing.


Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Maggie. Thanks for coming by. Yes, I agree, it's better to keep them in the story rather than be 100 percent accurate.

Keena Kincaid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Maggie. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book. It was a tough one to write, but ultimately one of the most satisfying that I've written.

Annette said...

I wrote a book called Albert's Rain, set at the end of slavery. I felt the need to write his dialectfor him and his family and it was HARD. I wondered about the acceptance of the book--to read the book, you have to get used to the dialect. I was worried that peole wouldnt get into it butmy mom says its her favorite in of all the books I've written.

Sherry Gloag said...

Interesting blog. It is a hard balance to find. I hate being pulled out of a story because I don't understand the wording, and yet I also dislike historicals where the dialogue is too modern.
The secret, I believe, is in creating 'the essence of place'. Once the reader is 'there' the author has more chance of using a bit of licence with the vernacular.

Keena Kincaid said...

Thanks for stopping in, Annette. Have you read Irvine Welsh's book Trainspotting? He wrote in first person POV, with each chapter being from a different character's perspective. He used dialect and accents to differentiate the characters. It was tough to read...I had to read certain passages out loud to figure out what the character was saying.

Keena Kincaid said...

Hi, Sherry.
I agree that creating that essence is crucial, and I love that challenge. It involves so much more than dialogue.

Deborah Swift said...

What a great post. And I agree you must try not to jolt people out of the story. On the other hand, the particular rhythms of speech and the odd judicious word of dialect can really transport the reader to another time and place and give the character the "otherness" that makes for a really exciting read. Congratulations on "Enthralled", hope it does really well.