Sunday, May 6, 2012

Do not misapprehend me, good sir: Modern vs. non-modern dialog

It has been pointed out to me on more than a few occasions that I rarely seem to discuss my own work on my own blog. That's something I hope to somewhat remedy in a somewhat interesting way starting with today's post.

As one might surmise from either my previous statements on the matter or just my general interests, several of the writing projects I'm working on are historical in nature. Now these bring with them some additional complications that haven't plagued with my pure fantasy or contemporary projects. There is the obvious issue of the requisite historical research. The minute you make any aspect of your story historical, people do take notice and it affects verisimilitude.

When I was passing through my upcoming Regency paranormal work, A WOMAN OF PROPER ACCOMPLISHMENTS (AWOPA), through my writer's group, several of the readers were people with a particular interest in the Regency Period. The book is set in an alternate 1811 in Bedfordshire, England. In this alternate timeline, a type of magic (which, of course, the various stuffy members of the Royal Society insist isn't magic) called spiritus has been discovered. Among other things it allows for the animation of objects. The martial applications aren't unappreciated, so many countries bolster their armies with automaton soldiers. In addition, the American Revolution was squashed after the English win at the Battle of Saratoga with the aid of these artificial troops.

What was interesting during the process of having my novel critiqued was that, for the most part, people were able to accept these rather significant diversions from history inserted into what was otherwise a sweet* Regency Romance. Instead, they were far more concerned with elements such as potential period inappropriate social interactions, et cetera. Period fiction, whether it involves magic or not, does have to be rather careful. Atmosphere is everything.

Language is one of the trickiest areas to navigate. To capture the language of 1811 for AWOPA, I spent some time reading some period letters and diaries. When I wrote the first draft, I used etymology resources to ensure that the words I was using were appropriate both in that they existed in the period and they were used in the same manner. There are probably a small handful of slightly out-of-period words I ended up letting slip through.

When I first passed my book along to my writing group, there was a bit of a problem. My desired fidelity to period language had hurt accessibility. No one disputed that the language style was appropriate for the period, but many were having trouble getting into the story because of the same style. On occasion, amusingly enough, I did have a person suggest that I was using a word in a too modern way, a discussion that was quickly ended with, for example, me pointing to a primary source. Sometimes certain words and concepts are far older than we might think.

I split the difference and rewrote the work to end up with something that it is evocative of the period (and still mostly uses only period words), but with a bit more modern syntax. Perhaps overly influenced by the work of Georgette Heyer, I was also initially rather aggressive with the insertion of Regency slang, which, admittedly is rather impenetrable if you aren't otherwise familiar with it. It took me half the first Heyer book I read until I figured out what some of the words she was using almost every page meant. I didn't excise all the slang from my manuscript, but I tried to stick to things that were a bit more easy to figure out in context.

In the end, it was a compromise between accessibility and accuracy. I'm sure upon release some will complain that it's still too stuffy and some will complain that it's not true enough to the period, but I'm pleased with the overall compromise.

A story set in England, even two hundred years in the past, still has the advantage of language that can be parsed by most modern English-speaking readers. I may have compromised for accessibility, but I could have kept my original style. Writing an understandable story with "accurate" language in say, the 11th century, would be a much more difficult affair.

My other major historical project is a straight (that is no paranormal elements) historical thriller set in the Heian period of Japanese history. Writing accurate language for the period would require me to, among other things, write the story in classical Japanese, which would present challenges even for Japanese natives to parse.

During a recent discussion of Hilary Mantel's work by The Economist, there was a discussion about her linguistic choices. She doesn't, for example, trend to perfectly and accurate render the language of 17th-century England. From what I've read of her work, I'd agree with that assessment. It's more about atmosphere than pure accuracy.

I've read several books by J.R. Tomlin, who writes medieval novels focused on the Scottish War for Independence. She uses modern English interspersed with the occasional period Scots, English, or French word, She also makes use of, on occasion, somewhat archaic syntax to communicate the feel of the language. It's  certainly not an accurate direct rendering of the language, but it certainly communicates a certain atmosphere.

On the other end of the spectrum is someone like Gordon Doherty. I read one of his books set during the Roman Republic period and another set in the Byzantine Empire. Mr. Doherty, for the most part, uses rather modern syntax and modernish slang. He intersperses in period words, typically, in relation to specific weapons and military terms.

Arguably, these are opposing techniques. J.R. is trying to promote the historicity through atmosphere while maintaining accessibility. Gordon's going straight for near maximum accessibility. Neither technique is "accurate" in the pure linguistic sense, but short of learning new languages (or classical forms of languages one already knows), no one, I think is going to have that much of an issue. Gordon's style is a reflection, I think, of something that we often forget: the commonly used language of the past was the vernacular for those people and so reflecting it in more vernacular modern language form is a way of communicating the spirit of those exchanges even at the potential cost of some atmosphere. What style a person prefers will, I think, just depend on their own reading biases. I seem to have a natural inclination more toward J.R.'s style than Gordon's, but both have their merits.

Sometimes people also have false expectations of what constitutes accuracy in language depictions. I saw a person once complaining that a book focused on 17th-century Canadian Native tribes had the natives using contractions and that their languages didn't have contractions. The book was written in English (with the occasional bit of French). Now, it's a bit odd, I think, to suggest that "translated" dialog, as it were, should mirror the exact syntax and morphology of the original language. Mandarin, for instance, doesn't have true tense in the sense you see in English. Instead, it has aspect, which marks not time of action but rather state of completion. It'd be downright silly to write a book in English involving characters speaking Mandarin and then not use tenses.

As I circle back around to my thoughts on my Heian project, I'm still unsure how I'm going to handle it. At the moment, even though I've a good outline of the plot, I'm still knee-deep in research. Although I have a good high-level understanding of Heian history, that's not the same as having the firm grasp of daily living details that are necessary when writing a work of fiction.

The question of language is one I go back to again and again. How many classical Japanese words (or even modern Japanese words) should be inserted? Is it better to express the concept completely in English if there's an easy equivalent word? Conversely, if the word doesn't have an elegant translation, is it best to leave it in Japanese? There's a certain amount of atmosphere that comes with using Japanese. Kami can be translated as god or spirit, but it's somewhat in-between. Not using the word results in a certain subtle lost of atmosphere and even conceptual understanding. Though, at the same time, if a person doesn't have the conceptual understanding to begin with, it might just confuse things.

There's the question of the best way to handle non-English terms. Some authors just are careful to let their meaning be inferred in context, and some even just present short sections that define the terms before or after the actual main text.

Most of the characters in this novel are highly educated aristocrats, members and family members of a bureaucratic elite obsessed with form over function. In that sense, somewhat old-fashioned English marked by flowery language, the kind that some people tend to often associate with historical speech, accurate or otherwise, may be appropriate. Heian aristocrats, after all, were people who expected each other to produce specific-form poetry quickly in social situations.

In the end, though, no matter what I do, it'll be inaccurate. I mean I'm not even writing the dialog in modern Japanese, let alone classical Japanese. So, with that in mind, does that grant me a sort of freedom that I don't quite have with say my Regency work?

I'm curious what your thoughts are?


*For those unfamiliar with romance novel "temperature" levels, sweet is typically considered the least steamy in terms of sexual content. It used to mean no sex at all, but nowadays it often can mean just "no sex shown." In my case, I use it to mean no sex at all.


Heather Marsten said...

It seems you have a good philosophy for the balance of story and dialogue. While period dialogue accuracy is interesting, it may detract from moving the plot forward. The idea of fiction is to get the reader engrossed in the story, and if there is too much dialogue, backstory, history, inserted it pulls the reader away from the characters and story line.

J.A. Beard said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Heather.