Forsooth, Sir, Canst Thou Not Speak More Plainly?

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Egads, mistress, art thou addressing me?

The style of language to adopt when writing historical fiction is a topic that keeps authors continuously arguing. Readers, too, have their own strong opinions as to whether a novel’s language is suited to the period in question. The main issue, of course, is whether or not the words sound too modern for the time. We hear comments like, ‘People in sixteenth century England would not have used those words.’ And in some cases, they are correct. We only need to check the derivation of the word to find out.

It’s very easy with everyday items. We all know, for example, that cars, trains and planes should not make an appearance in the sixteenth century. Nor washing machines, duvets or a million other things that we take for granted today. Not to mention electricity pylons across the countryside!

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An sight unknown on the ancient landscape

But when it comes to general word use in a story, things are not as simple as that.  Language is constantly evolving. New words are added as technological advances are made. Other words become obsolete. And, of course, populations evolve. Immigration and emigration are nothing new. The English language is basically composed of a mixture of Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Norman. But during the last seventy years in particular the massive scale of immigration into Britain, for example, has added many other words to the language – as indeed it has cultures. I know the United States can claim the same.

When all’s said and done, novelists are out to tell stories – and those stories must be accessible and interesting to readers. A novel set in Tudor times littered with thees, thous, wilts, hasts and forsooths and so on, would soon become . . . well, in my opinion, absolutely comical. We have many TV comedy sketches to back that up.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that the writer should resort to phrases such as, ‘What yer playin’ at buster?’ or, ‘Henry looked a right charlie in that hat.’ Gross exaggerations, of course, just to make a point, but such phrases would look no more out of place in a novel about Henry VIII than a string of egads and forsooths. 

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Old language must be translated to be understood

What I believe most writers of historical fiction aim for is something close to a happy medium. A sprinkling of skilfully placed authentic historical terms will not appear ridiculous, whereas too many would do. Perhaps it’s all a question of style. A writer must set the correct tone for the period yet still move the story along in an engaging manner that modern readers can relate to.

Some years ago I read a short article by Michael Jecks, who’s written many historical fiction novels, many of them murder mysteries. Most are set in the Middle Ages. In the article, Jecks discussed criticism he’d had from reader(s) who considered the language used in his books to be inaccurate for the time. His answer was excellent. He simply pointed out that in the Middle Ages, the language used was totally different to that of modern times (basically Anlglo Saxon with a sprinkling of Celtic, Latin, Norse etc: in other words, Middle English) which today, only scholars of the period would understand.

More recently I found a YouTube presentation by Michael Jecks on the same theme. Here’s the link for anyone interested.

I’m sure that most historical fiction authors already do work along the lines Jecks outlines here. I know that I have tried to do so in my own two novels, Shadow of the Raven and the soon to be completed, Pit of Vipers.

One of the funniest things I’ve read on this subject was in a ‘Writing’ magazine back in the nineties. The author of the article was an editor, who told of the worst example of historical inaccuracy he’d ever come across in a work submitted to him in hope of publication. The novel was about Mary Queen of Scots. Although my wording may not be absolutely accurate (I read it a long time ago) it is certainly very close. In this scene, Mary supposedly says to her husband, Darnley:

‘Darnley, honey, let me fix you a chicken sandwich.’

Any comments on this fascinating subject would be very welcome.

*****

The City of York – a gem of a place for historical fiction writers

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Last Tuesday, my husband and I had a trip out to the wonderful old city of York. We’re regular visitors to the city itself, which is roughly eighty miles from where we live, but on this occasion our main purpose was to  revisit the Jorvik Viking Centre. We hadn’t been to Jorvik since the early 1990’s and the whole place has been considerably updated since then, although the basic layout of the Viking streets was much as I remembered it.

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Jorvik Viking Centre is 30 years’ old!

York itself is a magnet for tourists from many parts of the world. Cameras are out wherever you go in the central areas, aiming to capture as many of the beautiful or quaint old buildings as possible. Others aim for more specific periods of history, because York is one of those places that display a veritable journey through time.

To quote from Wikipedia:

The history of York as a city dates to the beginning of the first millennium AD but archaeological evidence for the presence of people in the region of York date back much further to between 8000 and 7000 BC.’

In the first century AD, the town was called Eboracum, and was one of the major Roman cities – their ‘capital’ in the North of Britain. Prior to that, the region belonged to Celtic tribes, the most well know of which were the Brigantes. There’s abundant evidence for the Roman occupation around the city, from the town walls and gates . . .

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Section of the Roman Wall
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Bootham Bar – the main , northbound gateways in the Roman wall
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Micklegate Bar

. . . to columns and plaques signifying what once stood on particular sites, as well as umpteen artefacts in The Yorkshire Museum.

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Roman column
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Plaque at Bootham Bar

Following Roman withdrawal from Britain, the whole country was left open to raiders from across the sea – notably at this period, those we call the Anglo Saxons. The map shows areas on the Continent from which some of these peoples came:

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Where the Anglo-Saxon peoples came from

It was the Angles who mainly settled in Northumbria, the Saxons being much further south. The Angles called the city, Eorforwic (in some texts Eorferwic). The favoured building material of the Anglo-Saxons was wood, which, unfortunately for archaeologists and historians, does not endure through the centuries. So, little remains of Anglo-Saxon York other than general artefacts, like this 8th century helmet found on Coppergate, which also happens to be the the main street in Viking York.

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The Coppergate Helmet – Coppergate also happens to be the main street in Viking York.

The Vikings (mostly Danes) first subjugated York in 866, a year after the arrival of what we call the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in East Anglia 865. Danish settlement in the area would doubtless have taken place gradually, but by the time of the establishment of the Danelaw (following a treaty between Alfred the Great  and the Danish leader, Guthrum, in 886) the Anglo-Saxon name of Eorforwic had become the Danish name, Jorvik.

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The Danelaw

Here are some illustrations  and artefacts from the Jorvik Viking Centre website. As in most museums, flash photography is forbidden (which meant that our camera was banned) so if photos are wanted, visitors need to remember to carry something with a built-in flash. The marketing manager, Mr. Paul Whiting, very kindly suggested I use the photos from their website. Here’s the link -Jorvik for anyone who’d like to have a look for themselves:

Woodturner
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Fisherman working on his net
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Viking woman in traditional dress
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Jorvik building timbers

The Jorvik holds several events over the year, which cover the whole period of Viking York up to the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066. After that date the tale of Medieval York begins – for which there is boundless evidence all over the city . . . And so on through to more recent times. The ‘veritable journey through time’ to which I referred earlier can be seen through the strata meticulously displayed in the Jorvik Centre.

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Ready for the shield-wall
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Arm-rings
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Leather shoes
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Padlock
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Pan-pipes

York has been like a honey-pot to settlers since ancient times. The River Ouse, which flows through the city and out to the North Sea, would have provided a natural route inland for settlers and raiders alike.

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River Ouse

The river’s confluence with the smaller River Foss provided the requisite natural defences for the early city, and the surrounding fertile and flat land was ideal for crops.

Since my Sons of Kings trilogy is set in the mid-late 9th century, it’s the Anglo-Saxon and Viking evidence that presently draws me to York. But I also love all things Roman and medieval. After the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487 my interest tends to wane, but it sparks right back up again with the onset of the Victorian period and the First World War.

But right now, I’m even dreaming of Anglo-Saxons and ‘Vikings’ – and King Alfred’s almighty struggle to keep his kingdom . . .

Vikings! Who Were They – And How Did They Get That Name, Anyway?

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The definition of the word ‘Viking’ in the Oxford Dictionaries is as follows:

Any of the Scandinavian seafaring pirates who raided and settled in many parts of North West Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries.

According to many films, TV series (not documentaries) and novels, the hiss of that single word, ‘Vikings!’, stuck terror into the hearts of peoples across North West Europe – especially the inhabitants of coastal or riverine settlements. But, from what I’ve deduced from a variety of texts, the word was not generally used at the time.

The origin of the word is still open to debate, but it’s undoubtedly an ancient word, as it appears on rune stones of the Viking Age. In some cases it refers to a person who travels, or an adventurer, and it is possible that even at this time the word applied to raiders. Yet, according to David Wilson in his book, ‘The Vikings of the Isle of Man’, the term was not in general usage in the English language until the mid nineteenth century.

Referring to the Hurstwic website:

In the Norse language, vikingr means a man from vik, where vik may have the sense of a bay, or the specific bay called Vikin in the south of Norway. Perhaps the name was applied because the first Viking raiders were from Vikin, or perhaps the raiders waited in sheltered bays for their victims.

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No one can doubt that such raids took place but, at the time, the marauders, and later on, settlers, would collectively have been referred to as ‘Northmen’, or ‘Norsemen’ – men from the north.

In the ninth century, the Northmen / Norsemen who raided and eventually settled in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (which did not become known as England until the tenth century) would have come primarily from the area we now know as Denmark and from Norway. Most of the Swedes tended to head east, up river valleys into the heart of Eurasia. Like England, the names of Denmark, Norway and Sweden did not exist either, and the entire region would have been called the Norselands.

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When writing fiction, this becomes quite problematic, and it is often easier to use the names we know today – which I have done in places in my own novels, Shadow of the Raven and Pit of Vipers (the latter should be on Amazon soon).

I know I’m not alone when I say I find the Viking world fascinating. Norse mythology is both complex and colourful, the multiple gods and goddesses and their entire universe a trigger for the imagination.

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Odin, the All Father, with his two ravens, Hugin and Munin (Thought and Memory)

I realise that certain aspects of the Viking culture leave some people shouting utter condemnation – the blood sacrifices to the gods and the barbaric raids in particular. But what we have to bear in mind is that moral standards of the period were so vastly different to those of most modern-day cultures. Many such practices were based on the need for survival throughout the harsh winter months. Raids gained the Viking people silver, or goods to trade or sell in order to buy basic requirements of everyday life, including food. Today we may well see their actions as monstrous, but it’s simply how it was.

And let’s not forget, the Vikings were only one group of the many such raiders, including the Anglo-Saxons, who, by the time of the first Viking raids (as on the monastery at Lindisfarne) were well established Christians. I’m sure you could list a whole lot more.

One of my earliest encounters with Vikings was in the 1950’s film, aptly entitled, ‘The Vikings’. I’m sure even those amongst you who hadn’t even been born then, have heard of it. Well, in 1959, at the age of eleven, I loved it. I was on holiday with my family in the Isle of Man – and what wet and cheerless weather we had! So we had an afternoon at the cinema. Now, of course, the film is too dated and corny to interest real Viking fans, like me.shutterstock_123315433

*****

A dalliance with fantasy

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When night’s dark shadows bow deference to the burgeoning dawn, the dreams will come. She can no more prevent them coming than she can stop the sands of Time from flowing. It has always been thus, since the Beginning.  Her destiny is to know; to remember what has been and envision what has yet to come.

The sweet smell of honeysuckle suffuses the cave and her face assumes the serenity of one accustomed to the way of things. Her consciousness is immersed in colour: a vortex of dazzling hues, entwined in fierce embrace. She waits, motionless, for the tones to unravel, the images to form . . .

Green is first: verdant forest and meadow, rippling in the breath of a soft summer breeze; downy hills rolling to the distant horizon. Blue follows soon: cobalt seas that dance at the touch of golden sunbeams, the sky a vastness of azure splendour.  The woman sighs, humbled by such beauty.

Then red erupts and she gasps, loath to remember. Scarlet hurtles through the valleys and befouls the streams. Women in Roman garb scream in panicked flight from blue-painted warriors intent on their slaughter; mutilated shapes ooze scarlet amidst Andredsweald’s great oaks.

Centuries slip by and scarlet intermittently ebbs and flows. The present races past and the future is suddenly upon her. Black ravens fly, and scarlet is again in full spate.

But honey-gold stands ready.

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Some time before I came to my senses and realised that the story of Alfred the Great didn’t lend itself too well to fantasy, I wrote the whole of my now historical fiction novel (Shadow of the Raven) as historical fantasy. The ‘she’ in the scene above is an immortal being – which you’ve probably already gathered. I won’t bore you with her role in the story, but it was a fairly major one.

Imagine how long it took to take out all the fantasy parts. As with the battle scene I posted recently, it’s all still in my deleted file . . .