Thursday, 6 November 2008

More thoughts on language styles


"I know that some readers don’t like my ‘modern language’ approach – and, I mean, really don’t like it! Well, I can understand that; I do sympathise with that. I understand that, for some readers, the modern language ‘gets in the way’, breaks the spell, even seems ridiculous. But that’s how the stilted dialogue of many other historical novels seems to me. I wanted to write a ‘historical novel’ that I’d want to read. When I’d finished The Queen of Subtleties, my agent and editor each compiled a list of words that had jarred, for them: words that had gone too far. I did study those lists (and was grateful for their efforts!), but in the end I decided to ignore them. Because, otherwise, I’d be writing by committee. I’d had a vision for the book, and I had to stay true to that. And you can’t please all the people, all the time."
This is a snippet from Suzannah Dunn's website, and it is well worth reading the whole piece.
I read the Sixth Wife, and to be honest I was put off by the modern language the author used, not only for her dialogue but I think I'm correct in saying she used it for exposition too. But you know, by the middle of the book I was easier with it and by the end I'd forgotten about it. My mindset had altered and embraced her use of language.
I know that Dorothy Dunnett wrote in what I have to call "modern language." I had no problems with her novels because she did not use modern jargon or slang - nothing too twentieth century. If I checked I'd probably find there were no words in her Lymond series that would have been unfamiliar in 1560. (Though occasionally there was a tiny slip - I'm not convinced that even the brightest person alive then would have know of the existence of brain cells.) In her first book Ms Dunnett made a glorious game out of using "old" words like passementerie - and I hope I've spelled that correctly - I don't use it very often! - that sent many of us off on a chase through dictionaries to discover the meaning. I enjoyed that, but some people found it irritating.
Ms Dunnett had a style all her own, and one I enjoyed tremendously. The opening line of Disorderly Knights, for instance: "On the day his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt." Now doesn't that get your attention? It got mine.
Or, a little later in the chapter - "Swearing with great spirit from time to time, always a good sign with Sir Walter, he flew through the filmy splendours of autumn, primed to nick Kerr heads like old semmit buttons."
You don't need to know what old semmit buttons are to pick up sense of glorious adventure and tongue in cheek humour to know you're going to enjoy a wonderful read.

1 comment:

Linda Banche said...

As much as people may complain about non-authentic language, very few want to read it. I think standard modern English, maybe a little more formal than today's speech, and without current slang, will work.

What throws me out of the book is a word or phrase that obviously did not exist in the time period. I once read a Regency where the heroine called the hero a "control freak". No, I don't think so.