This question arrived in my e-mailbox a few days ago. The questioner has given me permission to post it.
"If an author is writing historical fiction, should the words be spelled as we spell them now, or should the spelling reflect the period?"
Sage practicing writers, what's your advice?
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Question on Historical Fiction
Posted by Erika D.
Labels: Craft of Writing, Fiction
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Author's choice, in my opinion. That's part of the creative process - choosing one's approach.
The original question implies a historical set relatively close to us in time (since the only concern is the spelling and not another language such as medieval French or ancient Latin), but no matter how far back the story is set, the audience will be decidedly modern. It is the author's decision whether to make her work approachable or difficult, to make her readers' experience easy or hard work.
I think that if the words are used in exposition or back story, they should be spelled as they are now to avoid confusion for the reader. You don't want them to put the book away because it's too hard to read (and let's face it, some of those old spellings can be confusing. Have you ever tried to read an old document when doing genealogy, for instance?) But, if it's in dialogue, you might be able to get away with it. Personally, I would always opt for clarity and in this world where everything moves at the speed of the Internet, you don't want to do anything to alienate your reader.
I'm with Margay - clarity and readability are more important. The author should certainly use details unique to the period to add texture and historical accuracy, though.
I would agree with the clarity argument, but it would certainly be the case if the period were far back.
E.g., the King James bible. Leaves a lot of people in the dust. And Shakespeare requires an interpreter.
I tried reading Melville again recently and found the archaic language to be a stumbling block.
And that's the decider for me: if there are stumbling blocks for the reader, continuity is spoiled.
Is there a way to have it both ways? Descriptive in contemporary language and dialogue in period?
For an example of how one writer negotiated this issue, see Natalie Wexler's excellent novel, A MOST OBEDIENT WIFE. As some of you may remember, the 18th-century voice/style came up in this interview with Natalie.
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