One of the joys, or not, of writing historical romance is the language choices it requires. Obviously, if you’re writing an Anglo-Saxon romance, you’re going to have to go for modern English. I mean, you don’t have to…
No, let’s stick with modern English, simply avoiding the more glaring offences of slang, technical terms and other obvious date markers. (Such as Shakespeare referring to ‘popish tricks’ in Titus Andronicus, a play set in pre-Christian Rome. Honestly, what a loser.)
It gets trickier when we come closer to now. On the one hand, you want to give a period flavour to your words; on the other, if you really try to write in, say, Georgian-style English you’ll leave readers blinking and bewildered. I recently bought a novel set in 1780 that was praised (by, I assume, the author’s mum) for its period language. I chucked it aside at p.15 because it was utterly incomprehensible, and that’s coming from a word nerd who’s just written a Regency-set trilogy.
Historical readers love a bit of Heyeresque slang, but that can be easily overdone. I am a massive fan, but the great Georgette was capable of dialogue which…
“Chuff it! I told you at the time that I wasn’t going to let you break my shins! … You must have been having the devil of a time in the bumble-broth I brewed. Thank you, bantling!”
Much of it becomes clear from the context, of course, but take this passage from The Unknown Ajax when a young man has been (supposedly) playing cards and drinking with his cousins:
“From the looks of it, he’ll be casting up his accounts before he’s much older. Better get him to bed.”
For years I had a vague idea that ‘cast up his accounts’ meant to settle his card losses. Actually, the next bit of dialogue should have made all clear:
“He will in all probability cast ‘em up as soon as he gets to his feet.”
Even this much grounding doesn’t necessarily make forgotten slang accessible: I had no idea it meant ‘throw up’ for ages. (In my defence, I started reading Heyer before I started drinking.)
Slang pro tip: Jonathon Green, the slang lexicographer, has made extraordinary Timelines of Slang available on the internet. You can find the first use of all kinds of wonderful words and phrases here, although you can also spend hours giggling hysterically at modern synonyms for masturbation, so caution is required.
Of course, it’s not just slang that authors have to consider. Absolutely accurate language is impossible, but that doesn’t mean writers should be blasé about anachronistic wording. I have read Regency romances that use ‘impact’ as a verb (“Your cruelty impacted me greatly, my lord!”), and even seen a Battle of Waterloo ‘okay’, although I didn’t see it for long due to chucking the book across the room with force.
Those are obviously terrible, but how are you to know which apparently routine words to check? Did you know that while ‘burglar’ dates from the 16th century, the verb ‘to burgle’ is a back-formation dating from the 1880s? No, nor did I. Thank God for copy editors.
And of course some words have changed meaning and there’s not much you can do about that. In A Seditious Affair, set 1819-20, calling someone a ‘democrat’ has something like the force of ‘communist’ or ‘Trot’ or even ‘domestic terrorist’ now. I know that, but it still feels weird to have ‘democratic scum’ on the page as a term of abuse.
In the end, of course, it’s all an approximation. I’m not writing Regency English; I’m just trying not to jolt the reader out of the illusion that that’s what I’m doing. And of course any effort at accuracy has to be balanced by the need of the modern reader, who just isn’t going to know if a gaying instrument is the same thing as a Sir John, and if it is, what you might do with it. (It is, and you should dance the blanket hornpipe. Obviously.)
Hmm. There’s a lot to be said for Anglo-Saxon words, isn’t there?
KJ Charles is a writer and freelance editor. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her latest, A Seditious Affair, received an A+ from AAR.