Language in historical novels

Something my editor said a while back struck a chord with me. She saw a short excerpt and questioned my use of the word “cute” as the piece was set in the Roman Empire and it was too American. Since then, as I’m red-penning I’m taking out as many modern words as possible. As I get more into the setting and characters the language is changing slightly. It’s always subtle things, but it does make a difference. Rather than making it more Roman, what I hope I’m doing is taking away things that could jar the reader out of their sense that they are in ancient Rome. For example, I just changed “turned up” to “arrived”. Not a huge change, but throughout it changes the whole mood of the piece.

I must admit I’m not too much of a fan of using the too much language from the era you are writing in. You don’t want to come across either like an encyclopaedia or leave your readers baffled as to what is going on. I know this is a fine line to tread as if you explain everything as you go, then you will have bored readers. So it’s a balance and you can use different techniques to introduce small facts as you go. I see it as a drip-feed process, a little at a time, when the reader needs it. The other thing that bothers me is when the language or accent gets too strong to be easy to read. The first example I can think of is the middle of Cloud Atlas which is set in a post-apocalyptic future. The characters all speak in a patois which is understandable. But it breaks up the flow of the story as the reader struggles to understand and translate. As I said in the first paragraph, what I’m aiming for is that the reader loses themselves in the world I create.

This is a process that must happen with all writing – you build a world and invite the reader in. But with historical novels it’s more important and more difficult. It can just take one odd piece of language or detail that jars, and the reader drops out.

What do you think? Do you notice the language when you read or write historical fiction?

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