Know your stuff – for historical writing

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Huge numbers of people still love to read fiction set in the past. Consequently, many modern authors seek to write works set in bygone eras. The first thing you notice when you read books written by Jane Austen for example, is the difference in language. If I compare a contemporary novel to Pride and Prejudice, for example, then yes, clearly they are both written in the same language, and use hundreds, if not thousands, of the same words. But they don’t always use them in the same way.

Language is a living thing, and it changes and evolves, just like us. Our attitudes change, and as the years go by, we learn, we develop, we change. And as we change, the language we use also changes.

For a writer it can be difficult to find the right words to express what you want to say. If your writing is set in the past it can be really tough. You want your prose to read like it could have been written by Austen, but you don’t want it to be dull, dense or overly complicated for twenty-first century readers who are less used to reading a style full of long sentences and descriptive passages.

My advice is, keep it simple. Write in a slightly more formal, grammatically correct style than you usually do, but don’t overdo it. Keep your sentence structure modern in the sense of being shorter, clearer and to the point, and avoid being too ‘wordy’. Then examine your writing for modern phrases and sayings, or modern concepts and allusions that have sneaked into your work. Make sure your work is carefully positioned in the world you are writing about. Don’t use words, phrases and ideas that would have been alien to your chosen era. To use Jane Austen again to illustrate an example, don’t refer to objects and things as stuff; stuff was another word for fabric or material. Many words have changed their meaning so make sure you use language consciously.

If you’re not sure about something, and research and interest groups haven’t helped you, then my suggestion would be to leave it out if you possibly can. Never underestimate the knowledge of your reader – if you have introduced an anachronism – something from the wrong time period – you can bet your reader will notice!

For research and guidance, check out these sites:

A glossary of Regency terms: http://www.linoreburkard.com/resources_glossary.html#t

The London season: http://www.logicmgmt.com/1876/season.htm

A great writing blog: https://maggiemackeever.wordpress.com/2008/08/28/writing-regency/

An introduction to the world of Jane Austen’s novels: https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/jane-austens-language/

 

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