Forsooth, Sir, Canst Thou Not Speak More Plainly?

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!

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. 

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.


My Favourite Historical Novels


I’ve been a ‘bookworm’ for as long as I can remember and, somehow, tales set in the past always claimed my attention much more easily than contemporary ones. Once my childhood fixation with stories of shipwrecks had waned (Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island and Swiss Family Robinson) I seemed to fixate upon those involving animals. I loved Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang and Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book and Just So Stories.


Then, when I was twelve, I read Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre. I started reading the book in the back of my dad’s car on a journey to visit relatives. Somehow I managed to ignore the chatter of my younger sister and brother sitting next to me, and concentrate on the book . . . And I kept on concentrating right through the said visit (oh, how utterly rude!) and all the way home. By that time, of course, I had very little of the book to finish. To say that it had got me hooked would sound about right. From then on I went through several more of the classics, amongst them various works by Dickens – Oliver Twist being a favourite at the time.

Although I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I can’t say it sent me into raptures. It was a ‘class reader’ in my fourth year (Year 10) and, like George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, which I studied for ‘O’ Level the following year, I suppose we analysed it to death! Conversely, I really enjoyed studying Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for ‘A’ Level. And what a dark and brooding tale that is – so like the Yorkshire Moors can be at times.


One interesting little book I read during my second year of secondary school (Year 8) was Elizabeth Goudge’s, The Middle Window. By that time I’d begun to take a real interest in history at school, and since we’d just been learning about the Jacobites and their fate at Culloden, the book was very meaningful to me. I also loved the appeal of the Scottish Highlands. Whether or not I’d find the writing style to my liking now, I can’t say.

And talking about writing style . . .

The author of historical fiction I most admire is Dorothy Dunnett. I read the six books of one of her famous series, The Lymond Chronicles, eighteen years ago, and have been telling myself for years that a reread is in order. In my opinion, Dorothy Dunnett’s novels need reading several times over in order to actually grasp the depth of the characters, particularly Lymond (Francis Crawford) himself. The writing style, too, is incredibly complex, and some pages need reading a few times in order to make sense to lesser mortals such as myself. But, once past the first few pages of Book 1, Game of Kings, I ‘caught on’ to the language/style and from then on, was able to follow the story. Dorothy Dunnett’s use of poetry is quite amazing – and much of it is in French! And what an opening line:

‘Lymond is back.’

Just three little words that have the power to induce so many questions . . .

In more recent years, one of my favourite historical novels has been River God by Wilbur Smith. His descriptions of ancient Egypt enthralled me, as did the character of Taita.


Similarly, Christian Jacq’s many books set in Egypt fuelled my imagination. I read the five books in his series about Ramses II, then Paneb the Ardent from his the Stone of Light series. Needless to say, I really enjoy most books about Egypt.

But it’s not only Egypt that holds me fascinated. Roman novels have a similar pull. I particularly enjoyed Colleen McCullough’s Caesar and Caesar’s Women. I intend to start on Ben Kane’s first Roman novel, Hannibal: Enemy of Rome very soon. I also love novels set in Victorian and Edwardian times, and also during World War 1.

I desperately need to reread several works by American authors, including some written by Mark Twain. I can only remember reading abridged versions of both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, early on in school. I also feel quite ashamed to admit that I haven’t even read Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mocking Bird yet, although it’s been on my Kindle for months. Then I’d like to read Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, followed by Alex Hale’s novel, Roots. I did watch the TV series of Roots in the late 1970’s so I know that the story is incredibly moving.

I must add that I also enjoy novels with a crime/detective element. Many of these have had historical settings, but some have not. At present I particularly enjoy the grittiness of Val McDermid’s storylines and the quirky humour and unconventional tactics of Mark Billingham’s detective, Tom Thorne. I also like Patricia Cornwell’s novels involving the pathologist, Dr. Kay Scarpetta and the details of forensic work described.

I’ll finish for now and get back to writing Pit of Vipers – Book 2 of my Sons of Kings series.

shutterstock_194185796A few interesting quotes about books and reading:

I’m writing a book. I’ve got the page numbers done. (Steven Wright)

If there’s a book that you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. (Toni Morrison)

Anyone who says they have only one life to lead must not know how to read a book. (Author unknown)shutterstock_182063360