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Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Lorna Doone

Excess Verbiage

When I was growing up I read classic fiction such as Dickens, The Brontes, Dumas, and Blackmore. These were my formative influences, and nuances of their language still make their way into my books. This is both an advantage, and a disadvantage. On the one hand, I’m hugely grateful for the vocabulary I have which mostly came from reading these books. The trouble is – only some of this vocabulary is still in use today, and much of it is outdated. I sometimes find myself using over-complicated or archaic words when a simpler one would be clearer.

Obvious archaisms such as ‘forsooth’ are easily avoided, but subtler ones often slip through the net. I’ve noticed in some historical novels, characters tend to ‘regard’ each other.

‘She regarded him with an icy stare.’

The word ‘regard’ for look, is very rarely used these days. A few of these old-fashioned words can give flavour, but too many and the prose becomes weighed down and stodgy.

Here is John Ridd from Lorna Doone, talking about a prank from his school days:

‘This is the manner of a “winkey,” which I here set down, lest child of mine, or grandchild, dare to make one on my premises; if he does, I shall know the mark at once, and score it well upon him. The scholar obtains, by prayer or price, a handful of saltpetre, and then with the knife wherewith he should rather be trying to mend his pens, what does he do but scoop a hole where the desk is some three inches thick. This hole should be left with the middle exalted, and the circumference dug more deeply. Then let him fill it with saltpetre, all save a little space in the midst, where the boss of the wood is. Upon that boss (and it will be the better if a splinter of timber rise upward) he sticks the end of his candle of tallow, or “rat’s tail,” as we called it, kindled and burning smoothly. Anon, as he reads by that light his lesson, lifting his eyes now and then it may be, the fire of candle lays hold of the petre with a spluttering noise and a leaping. Then should the pupil seize his pen, and, regardless of the nib, stir bravely, and he will see a glow as of burning mountains, and a rich smoke, and sparks going merrily; nor will it cease, if he stir wisely, and there be a good store of petre, until the wood is devoured through, like the sinking of a well-shaft. Now well may it go with the head of a boy intent upon his primer, who betides to sit thereunder! But, above all things, have good care to exercise this art before the master strides up to his desk, in the early gray of the morning.’

A fascinating extract – but probably best not to try this ‘winkey’ trick at home! But I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s very wordy. There’s a tendency in historical fiction to add more words to try to make it sound more ‘historical.’ This has the effect of making the novel too dense. Simplicity allows the prose to breathe.

‘Yes please,’ said John.

Another hangover from classic fiction is the use of ‘said’ in this way: (again from Lorna Doone)

“Madam,” said Sir Ensor Doone—being born a gentleman, although a very bad one—”I crave pardon of you. My eyes are old, or I might have known. Now, if we have your husband prisoner, he shall go free without ransoms, because I have insulted you.”

“Sir,” said my mother, being suddenly taken away with sorrow, because of his gracious manner, “please to let me cry a bit.”

These days, it is common, and much neater, to have the subject before the verb – i.e ‘Sir Ensor Doone said’, ‘my mother said’. This makes the word ‘said’ less visible and puts the emphasis on the speaker, where it belongs. Having it after the speaker sounds like a school primer, or like a very old-fashioned novel. If you have read many Victorian (or earlier) novels, you may find you have unconsciously picked up this habit.

Picture and Excerpts from Lorna Doone from Project Gutenberg

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama is here, and 2 – Purple Prose is here

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8 replies on “Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past”

It would be best to remember that times differ. First, the audience was very limited then to A: those who could read, and B: those who had the time and money to read. It was like TV 60 years ago for the very affluent. Secondly, the writers were very often paid by the word. This was because, once again, the limited audience wanted quantity as well as quality. They liked to savour their entertainment. It’s like an audience now wanting a BBC reenactment rather than an American 150 minute encapsulation. It’s all in playing to your audience.

Hi Don, yes I totally agree. Times have changed and that’s why we must be careful as writers not to get stuck in the past. Audiences then had different demands, and the climate for writers before the twentieth century was much less egalitarian.

It’s an interesting topic – not sure War and Peace would make it through today’s editors! If you haven’t seen Woody Allen’s Love and Death which parodies the original prose brilliantly, it’s a treat!

You’re so right. I read loads of historial fiction and the stuff I like best is that which is written in simple language, with respect for the past, rather than trying to sound like a Dickens or Austen novel, or to sound too ‘literary’ (ie, bogged down with purple prose to make it sound more ‘historical’!).

Yours is among the best I’ve read – and I was also very struck by Bernard Cornwell (I actually read my first book of his only earlier this year) – so READABLE. I love Gemma Lawrence (new Tudor writer for this), and Tony Riches.

Then there are others that take it too far the other way, and write history as popular fiction – don’t get me started!

I haven’t read Gemma Lawrence. She’s now on my list. And as for Cornwell – millions of fans can’t be wrong! Thanks Terry.

If you’re going to write a modern story in a modern idiom, with modern expressions in the characters’ mouths, why not go the whole hog and set it in modern times? I agree that it’s discourteous to expect readers to work hard to grasp what you are writing, but the enduring popularity of writers like Jane Austen and even Conan Doyle shows that many like their period books to contain something a little different from contemporary ones. Surely a historical novel has to offer more than a superficial wrapping of watered-down history over something that reflects no more than today’s fashions and passing fads? Isn’t that a little patronising towards our readers, who are, we must assume, rational and intelligent adults?

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