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Topic: How do you feel about historical novels written in modern idiom?

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Subject: How do you feel about historical novels written in modern idiom?
Date Posted: 3/30/2008 9:22 PM ET
Member Since: 8/12/2005
Posts: 809
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I just read The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn and really disliked it (mostly because it read like bad chick lit).

One of the things I hated about the novel was Dunn's use of modern language, including slang. I don't need historical fiction to be filled with "prithee's" and "wouldst thou's," but too-modern phrases pull me right out of the story and back into the 21st Century.

Dunn had one character saying, "Don't bite my head off," and another referring to Edward VI, boy king of England, as "little Eddie" (among other examples).

To me, Sharon Kay Penman is an example of an author who writes natural sounding dialogue in historical novels that retains the flavor of the time and place.

How does everyone else feel about modern slang in historical novels? Good, bad or indifferent?

Date Posted: 3/30/2008 10:09 PM ET
Member Since: 7/30/2005
Posts: 1,080
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Thanks I think this is one book I am going to skip.

Date Posted: 3/31/2008 5:53 AM ET
Member Since: 12/10/2005
Posts: 2,851
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I don't need historical fiction to be filled with "prithee's" and "wouldst thou's," but too-modern phrases pull me right out of the story and back into the 21st Century.

Couldn't agree more. Like in The Pillars of the Earth, Follett's main character walks in a room and calls it a "dump." It's jarring. You'd think a good editor would catch the anachronisms.

Note to self: Pass on this author.

Thanks, Felicia!


Date Posted: 3/31/2008 9:41 PM ET
Member Since: 2/24/2007
Posts: 1,932
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I read Dunn's book The Queen of Subtleties about Anne Bolyen. I liked the approach of that book, but the writing was off and you just nailed why. Thanks Felicia.

Subject: and in films from historical novels, too
Date Posted: 3/31/2008 10:02 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading Conrad Richter's trilogy, The Trees, The Fields, and The Town, about the first white settlers in the Northwest Territory.  I looked forward to watching the film version with Hal Linden and Elizabeth Montgomery.  The television feature film was enjoyable.......for a while........

And then, Hal Linden, as the well-educated lawyer and judge from Massachusetts, Portius Wheeler, said,    .  "hopefully" !  I despise the erroneous use of  that word almost as much as I despise the phrase "you know" , that bit of linguistic sawdust used by so many American speakers.

Date Posted: 4/11/2008 11:32 AM ET
Member Since: 10/20/2007
Posts: 1,680
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I don't mind modern idioms in some historical fiction.  It saves me having to look up every other word (which I have done in several books).

I finished "Pillars of the Earth" and am in the middle of "World Without End" by Ken Follett and find I rather enjoy being able to fully understand the author's intent.

Date Posted: 4/12/2008 3:21 AM ET
Member Since: 3/31/2006
Posts: 28,535
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I don't think I'd mind too much as long as I can get the accents and such in my head right.  If it's too modern it might bother me though.  But, if it's all "ye olde English" it might bother me too because I might not understand what the heck they are saying.

Date Posted: 4/14/2008 6:16 PM ET
Member Since: 8/10/2005
Posts: 4,601
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I like the way Bernard Knight, who writes historical mysteries set in the 1100's in England, prefaces each book with the notation that his books are written in modern English because to try write his books in the language and idioms of the times he writes about would be total folly. The language at the time and place in his books was a combination of middle English, Saxon, Welsh, Norman French and (for churchmen) Latin, and we wouldn't understand a great majority of it in either spoken OR written form. Not only the words, but the colloquial usage of the words at the time. He does use some words from the time period that are mostly extinct now--mostly legal and church terms--but he has a glossary included  at the beginning of the book so you can quickly refer to it if you aren't familiar with the words, but having read several of the books in his series, I seldom need it anymore.

Personally, I want to know the STORY being told, and I want to understand it. I also don't want the language to be a distraction that pulls me out of the story either because I'm constantly having to look things up or because the author is using some sort of "stylized olde English,".... for example, one thing that has totally annoyed me about Sharon Kay Penman's writing was the constant use of the phrase "for certes" when most of the rest of the dialogue was written in fairly normal modern English. It just seemed like an affectation or something. I've enjoyed her stories and (so far) all the books of hers I've read but that one sticking point drove me nuts.

Of course I do agree that using a phrase like "better than sliced bread" or other decidedly modern colloquialisms in a book based in medieval times would be a real no-no and hopefully a good editor and/or proofreader would bring something so glaringly obvious to the author's attention if the author had slipped and put something like that in!


Subject: The Queen of Subtleties
Date Posted: 4/24/2008 1:32 AM ET
Member Since: 2/3/2008
Posts: 32
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I'm glad you liked the approach, Marci - I hated that thing - couldn't get more than a few pages into it. The extremely well-educated and erudite Anne Boleyn sounding like a Valley Girl (or whatever the modern equivalent is) with her Bills and Tommys - shudder! I'm pretty sure I read The Sixth Wife and don't remember anything that awful in it. I don't mind it being somewhat modern - would rather not be distracted by overly archaic language, but not so modern that it's equally distracting. I still remember a fantasy that I read (set in a rural, pre-modern environment like most fantasies are) where all of a sudden something was described as being "like a movie" or something of the sort. Even though it was in the narration, not anyone's conversation or anything like that, it still jarred me right out of the mood. It's like dialect - you can convey the flavor of it without getting so deeply into it that no one can read it.