1. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    How to write a scene from a previous era?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by picklzzz, Jan 25, 2012.

    Hi all. I have an idea for a novel I'm starting, and I want it to begin with something that took place in an earlier time (I'm not even sure which time period, but maybe between the 1500's and 1700's AD). I'm trying to research certain places in Europe and various things they would have had and how they dressed, but I'm confused as to how to use language in this scene.

    The scene is about a leader of a clan of religious fanatics who are performing a ritual, and the leader fears the members of his group are straying to Christianity or some other religious group.

    I'm just not sure how I should write the dialogue between the people and also the narrative. Should I try to use language of that time (the people probably weren't even English speaking in the region I'd like this to take place in - I'm thinking somewhere in Sweden or Norway - for specific reasons) or just use modern language? I guess it won't feel real if I use modern language, but I don't know how they'd phrase things in that era in that region.

    Perhaps I should look up some literature of that era and region?

    Any suggestions?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Write in contemporary language, for the most part. Obviously, avoid current slang and wording that is "trendy", but you don't want to lose your readers. Old literature makes difficult reading because the language changes a great deal over time.

    You can try to give the illusion of archaisms, but be aware that such attempts may backfire. You may end up sounding ridiculous. If you must attempt the illusion, keep a light touch. Filling your dialogue with "Thou mayst" and gratuitous "yea"s may turn you scened into unintended comedy.
     
  3. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You need to use understandable (fairly) modern English, but techniques like using formal address when people are speaking to each other, appropriate phrases for greetings etc can give a flavour of the age--educated people were more careful in their speech and etiquette than we are nowadays. I don't believe that the English necessarily has to be exactly how we speak these days, but it really depends on the genre and market you are after. Some writers use completely contemporary English successfully. Others use slightly archaic language very well. I've enjoyed novels in both styles, but the second is really hard to do well for the reasons Cog indicates.

    There are loads of places you can find examples of how people spoke in the 16th-17th century. You can read things like letters (luckily, people corresponded a lot before the days of the telephone!) or diaries, e.g. Pepys diaries (late 17th century) to get some ideas of how people used English. Sometimes the words Pepys uses are really antiquated (so don't use them) e.g. 'fain', but there are other times it reads as pretty modern (famously, he quotes the Lord Mayor as saying about the Great Fire that 'a woman could p**s it out). There are also parish, magistrates, and trial records (e.g. the trial of Charles I, the Salem witch trials) and so on which give running quotes of people's evidence. These are of course also by educated people, so again they are a cleaned up version of how working people spoke, but helpful all the same. I find these accounts more authentic than looking at novels or poetry from the age.

    This is all for English, but I undertood that you were writing in English even if the novel is set in Sweden? Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen's work has a strong scandanavian flavour and uses Norse images, and ─░bsen is also good to look at--sorry, I know they aren't Swedish! Also there is a pretty strong Lutheran influence in the culture... I could go on, but won't.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    obviously!

    check out well-made movies set there/then, too...
     
  5. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    Thanks all. Great ideas. I will look into those resources!
     
  6. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    I write historical fiction set in a culture that used a dead language - ancient Egyptian - but obviously I have to write in English. So, I see my writing as a translation of the original language - if they would have used slang when speaking to each other, like my slave girls nattering away, I use modern slang. If they would have used formal and perhaps even archaic language (as in formulaic phrases used to address people of high status, and in suplications, invocations or prayers) I use phrases that sound archaic, with thee and thou etc. Aristocratic characters speak the queen's own English, whereas common characters might use incorrect grammar or regional idioms. Some people have questioned my use of certain words, with the response 'would they have had that word in ancient Egypt?' to which I reply 'No, they didn't have ANY English words in ancient Egypt'.

    I mean come on, if a man is in charge of the force that served to investigate crimes and uphold justice, he's the police chief. Sometimes its just a case of finding appropriate shorthand to get across a concept that would otherwise take a paragraph the explain.
     
  7. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    I see what you're saying, Killithrix. I'm not sure though... I have recently started watching the show on ABC called Once Upon a Time (which is halfway decent), but it bothers me the casual and modern language they use in the ancient times when the witch and Snow White and the other characters are speaking. I think I will use a more formal language with the people and use very little dialogue in the scene. The purpose of the scene is to show the ritual the clan performs and what they are given in return. They meditate for several days after performing the ritual, so much of this can be said without dialogue, I think. I guess I'll write it and then see how I think it sounds. Maybe I'll post here for feedback! I'm curious about your stories. It may be appropriate for what you're doing. I'm not sure yet with mine, but as someone else said, I don't want to lose the reader either.
     
  8. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    I agree - it's different when you are writing a historical scene set in the same culture, therefore in the same language. I wouldn't write an Elizabethan novel with modern slang, I would research the language they used then and try to emulate it, although of course I would also try to ensure it was understandable to a modern audience, so use unfamiliar words and period diction sparingly, mostly in dialogue. My comments above only really apply to depicting cultures and periods that used a different language. I think this is what you're doing?
     
  9. riggbren
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    riggbren Member

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    Don't try to overload the reader with historical facts or old time-y speech, but also keep it consistent.
     
  10. 221b Jordan
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    221b Jordan New Member

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    Personally I'd change your writing style a little, just enough that your reader knows they have moved to a different era. But don't get too hung up on it, it's your world your creating after all.

    P.S madhoca. Swearing/Curse words are among the oldest in the English language, and Shakespeare invented a good number of them. :)
     

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