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Language In My Teen Historical Novels, by Pauline Francis

How do you choose the language that your characters speak in a historical novel? A novel usually takes a year to be edited and published. If you write contemporary fiction, it will already be out of date when it’s published. In a sense, most novels are historical fiction. But I’m really talking about historical fiction that takes us back hundreds of years years. It’s a huge responsibility to portray ways of speaking which have not been recorded. I think good language use in a historical novel suggests the past but can still be understood by today’s readers.

I once had an idea for a novel set in the Bronze Age and discovered that the language spoken then would have been based on a vocabulary of only two thousand words. I tried to write the novel using only those words… and it seemed restricted and dull.

The language in my novels set in 16th century England is a compromise. I can never know exactly how my characters spoke but I want to make my young characters people of their time. I want the language to be a blend of the past and present. I don’t try to reproduce Tudor slang but I do contrast the language from more modern language in subtle ways. I also try to use a few linguistic features to help distinguish each character.  For example, Jane wouldn’t have sworn but Elizabeth did. Religious language has changed the least, so when Jane (a Protestant) discovers that Ned is a Catholic, she overhears him reciting the rosary over a man killed by a falling tree.

In 16th century England, class differences were very distinct and I mark the difference by language. When Elizabeth meets a stranger on the banks of the Thames, rather than try to write how he spoke, I use Elizabeth to tell us: “His voice was gentle – and a gentleman’s, although it seemed from his accent that he was used to speaking French.” The boy, Francis, was brought up in France by his English mother and had returned to England to help Elizabeth find out the truth about her mother, Anne Boleyn. Otherwise, I would have had to write Francis’s dialogue in a sort of hybrid French/English which would have been ridiculous in this genre – although fine in a humorous book or a TV sitcom.

In choosing vocabulary generally, I use 16th century words that many readers would have heard of but would not use themselves in modern times. Many of my words are Shakespearian and although my books are set a few years before I don’t hesitate to use them, because they convey the general flavour of 16th century England.

It would be wonderful to hear my characters speak as they really did. I wonder: If they read my novels, would they understand them? Would they think I’d done well? I hope so.


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