Guest Post by N. L. Holmes –

Nobody—neither author nor reader—is likely to argue with the idea that historical fiction ought to be authentic. That’s why one of our primary duties is research—more urgently so than any other genre. We want to reflect an accurate picture of the lives and times we’re writing about—the clothing, the food, the customs, the names, the speech—in a seamless and natural way that doesn’t come across as didactic. Chances are, most readers wouldn’t even know if we slipped up here and there. I once opened a book set in Ancient Egypt that, on the first page, contained two whoppers: a “palace bell” ringing and a proper name that contained two Ls (the Egyptian language had no L sound). It was a big, fat turn-off for me, but I didn’t see any reader reviews that objected. Still, we have our professional consciences to answer to, don’t we? The responsible writer tries to get it right.

The specific area I’d like to talk about here is the matter of authentic speech. Each and every human being on the planet has his/her own idea about how people of the past should sound, and woe betide the novelist who violates those expectations. In fact, this issue is divided into two cases, and each one has its own problems. There are books set in English-speaking cultures in the past, and books set in completely distant cultures that spoke a different language

In the first case, the writer has to catch a flavor of the actual English spoken by his characters. This could be almost completely the same speech we use ourselves, with a smattering of different idioms and the avoidance of words or expressions that came into use after our period. (Better be scrupulous here! If an expression became popular in 1840, you can’t use it in 1830.) A person from the 1920s or the 1820s would recognize it immediately as what he would actually have said.

But before the eighteenth century, things get trickier. Let’s say your book is set in the fourteenth century. Are you prepared to write in Middle English? More important, could your readers follow you there? Personally, I bog down after the first few lines of The Canterbury Tales! Clearly you need to translate. You write in modern English, even though that’s not what your characters spoke. Translate. Observe all the warnings about idioms and anachronisms of expression, but what you write will not be the English they spoke, and nobody should expect it to be, eftsoons.

That brings us to the second kind of historical fiction: that set in a past world that did not speak English. Whether your book takes place in France during the Second World War or in Ancient Egypt, the dialogue you write is never going to be what those characters would actually have said. It’s a translation from a different language. And there are rules about what makes a good translation. One of those is that it’s more important to capture the flavor of the text than to translate literally. 

I interpret that injunction this way: if two low-class Romans are speaking colloquially between themselves in the street, it should be translated into low-class, colloquial-sounding modern English. Avoid too-recent idioms, of course (convention has set the acceptable limit at somewhere near the middle of the nineteenth century), or anything sprung from the Industrial Revolution or computer culture. But otherwise, the tone of the conversation in Latin should be evident from the tone of the modern English. Brace yourself, however; some readers will object. They are victims of the illusion that people in the past spoke like monumental inscriptions. And I’m afraid we novelists, trying too hard to be authentic, are partly responsible for that error. 

I have had a reader call “anachronism” because I’ve used words that come from Old French. True. Forty-one per cent of modern English comes from Old French, and in order to avoid it, I’d have to write in Anglo-Saxon. No thanks. But the bottom line is that every single person will have a different tolerance for what sounds authentically “olde.” You cannot please them all. The only position defensible against critics is to draw a reasonable line for ourselves and not to cross it. I’ve drawn my own line somewhere around the 1840s, because in general, expressions start sounding a little more old-fashioned around then. But please avoid “OK”, OK? Even if it dates from the other side of my line, it just sounds too American! And yes, I’ve actually encountered it in a book set in eleventh-century Arabia. Now you know where my anachronism tolerance fizzles out!

But keep an open mind. Your line may not fall where that of some of your readers does. To someone out there, it will sound too stuffy or too swingin’. Another reader once said that my Egyptian character sounded eighteenth-century because he addressed his son as “my boy.” Get ready for it. Don’t fight back. Just draw that line and stick to it.

N. L. Holmes is an archaeologist-turned-historical novelist who writes about the Bronze Age Mediterranean. She resides in France with her husband, two cats, and two chickens. She invites you to check out her books and throw your own stones!

Scroll to Top