If you can’t read the above then congratulations, you’re not an English Language graduate. And if you are and still can’t read it that’s because it really doesn’t make any sense because though I do EL at Edinburgh Uni I’m still very much a novice, Saxon is an absurdly complex language, and all I did was look up words on google. So… perhaps you’re wondering why I’m going with a title in a language that nobody in their right mind speaks anymore (what it actually says is ‘Insert Title Here,’ but that’s not the important bit).
Today is the 372nd anniversary of the battle of Newburn. Yes I love history and no, I still wouldn’t have known that if it hadn’t been for my Facebook feed (yes, I have a lot of strange pages liked). Why is this of an significance? Well the battle of Newburn took placed during Scotland’s Bishop Wars, which are very much the subject of my newly completed novel, Covenanted. I have thus been inspired by said anniversary to write a little bit on my particular poison, historical fiction. I’ve even included a pic of me at the recent (and utterly amazing) Fort George re-enactment day. Go Fraser’s Dragoons!
The title of this post is in Saxon to prove a point. Starting 60 – 100 years ago and going back FOREVER, people spoke differently from the way they speak today. And as you can see from the title, sometimes they spoke very, very differently indeed. Now this is a big beef when it comes to historical fiction, because one of the most common comments people seem to throw around when reading their fantasised works of yor is that “they wouldn’t have said that in those days!”
These simple words are almost guaranteed to trigger an unfortunate reaction in the otherwise mild-natured, timid historical novelist, ranging from a swiftly-disguised flinch to an apoplectic fit. What? Whaaaaat? You mean the Roman gladiators in my novel probably wouldn’t have spoken MODERN ENGLISH to one another? Oh my God, how did my months, nay, years of painstaking research miss this? Quick, fire my editor! Dammit no, SHOOT my editor! My entire work has been rendered utterly worthless by this mammoth, monument oversight!
Hopefully the above flood of melodramatic sarcasm gives you some insight into how people feel when you point out the so-called flaw of their inaccurate dialogue in historical fiction. No, you’re right, they probably wouldn’t have said “Good morning, how was your night last night,” in 15th century China but guess what? If the author went to the absurd effort of finding out exactly what they would have said, you wouldn’t have had the slightest hope of understanding it! Imagine if Bernard Cornwell had written his entire Saxon Stories series in Old English, that would’ve been a fun read wouldn’t it? Or Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror books in Medieval Mongolian? It just wouldn’t work.
Now, I’m not saying abandon hope all ye who seek historical accuracy. Accuracy is massively, massively important to any historical novelist worth her salt. But, and it’s a big, big but, when it comes to accuracy vs story, story must, must, must win every time. Even if it’s set as “recently” as Victorian England I still don’t want to have to wade through reams of Dickensian prose whenever the characters speak (unless I’m actually after a Dickens story, in which case I’ll probably just read his actual work rather than yours… no offense, he’s probably just better). Dialogue is a horrid temptation to historical writers, because their inevitable love of the history leads them to want to try their upmost to be faithful to the period they’re resenting. Speech then becomes a trap, something that may be fun for the writer to research but not so fun for the reader to read. And, sorry writers, but the reader is always right (I lie, but it’s a good rule to follow). If you send your editor a 150,000 word epic in Middle English, in the style of Chaucer’s original tales, well… probably going to struggle with getting that one past the slush pile.
To summarise yes, well done you sharp-eyed cookie, the people in our novels wouldn’t have addressed each other in that manner. Just be thankful I’ve translate it for you, and you don’t have to sit through the oft-times hellishly boring degree I’m going to be going back to in a couple of weeks’ time. Wyrd bi∂ ful aræd