Writing historical fiction: Should I include archaic language and dialogue?

This month I’ve been working on a short story set in Victorian England. I find history fascinating, and love reading historical fiction, so I thought why not have a go at writing it too?

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I posted the first draft of this story on the critique site Scribophile (you can find my review of Scribophile here). One person commented that they think it needs more accent, or old-time verbiage to give it a period feel.

Using archaic language, and whether to give characters a dialogue reflective of the time, is a dilemma I’ve wrestled with once before when I was writing my novel (which features time-travel). I decided in that case not to include archaic dialogue, partly because my style of writing tends to sway more towards being accessible and easy to read. I was hesitant to overcomplicate the language, and I find sometimes if I am reading novels with too much unfamiliar language, I tend to zone out. Although of course, that’s just personal preference.

Anyhow, writing a short historical story for adults brought this question to light again, so I decided to explore it a little further.

The main argument I could find for the inclusion of archaic language and dialogue in historical fiction is it can make your writing more believable and realistic. Using lexicon true to the times can, when used effectively, instantly transport your reader to a different era.

However, there’s the issue: when used effectively. This can be very hard to do. Writing historical fiction itself requires a lot of research. If you want your characters to speak archaically, then this will require further research into the idioms of the time. And even then, it’ll be hard to get it completely right. Readers may nit pit that you have the rhythm wrong, or have used an unsuitable word, and your work may feel wasted. Writing in an archaic style is always going to require a certain degree of guess work.

The danger of using, or at least overusing, archaic dialogue is that whilst it may be realistic, it could also be tiresome to read, and your reader’s may switch off after a couple of pages. Overly flowery and obscure language can be a big turn-off for some readers, who will want to get into the story, rather than worrying about what words mean.

The good news is if you choose to write your story using modern language, there are still a few things you can do to give that historic feel and make your story as believable as possible.

One straightforward method is to add descriptions of period details instead. Describe the setting, and give brief descriptions of clothes and housing, for instance.

You could also include attitudes reflective of the time, for example attitudes towards women. How would your character talk to women? Maybe they’d be blunt or dismissive. These things can be incorporated without the inclusion of archaic language.

In addition to thinking about what to add into your story, you may also need to think about what to leave out. Consider the etymology of words. When did they come into use? Avoid modern slang terms and think about the context of words, and whether they’d have the same context in the time you’re writing about as they do today.

Phrasing dialogue in certain ways can also help to give an archaic feel. For example, “where are you walking?” can feel more archaic when rephrased as, “to where do you walk?” This is still easy to read and comprehensible for the modern reader.

To sum up, whether to use archaic language in your writing is a personal choice. Some people love the believability it brings, whereas others will prefer to use entirely modern language. There’s really no right or wrong answer.

However, if you do use it, it’s best to use a sprinkle approach and use sparingly to maintain readability. There are numerous other ways to give your writing that historical edge, such as using vivid descriptions, incorporating attitudes reflective of the times, avoiding modern terms, and using phrasing in your dialogue.

Do you write historical fiction? And if so, do you use archaic language, or stick to modern words?



One thought on “Writing historical fiction: Should I include archaic language and dialogue?

  1. Pingback: “Florrie Moore is Innocent” – Short story shortlisted by Writers’ Forum Magazine competition | Sarah EA Hunter

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