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Language and Idiom in Historical Fiction

Simon Turney

I’m sure that since you’re planning to write a work of historical fiction, you’ll have read plenty too. If not, then that’s clearly your starting point. If so, then you will have noticed that every author finds a distinct ‘voice’ for their work and if they don’t then they are too miscellaneous and become lost in the field. A lot of that ‘voice’ revolves around how the author presents his world. This is a critical angle to settle upon for a writer, as it will be instrumental in how their work is seen in future.

Some writers like to launch as deeply into their era as they can, down to the use of language and speech patterns, idiom and mannerism. A good example of such writers is Julian Stockwin, writing about the Napoleonic Navy, and with every conversation so painstakingly realistic that if feels as though the reader is looking through a window into that time. Recently, Elaine Moxon did much the same with her Wulfsuna Saxon series.

Conversely, there are authors who write solid and thoroughly excellent work set in a historical period, yet using more modern idiom and language. A prime example of this for me is Anthony Riches, whose work reads easily and smoothly due to a more modern mode of language, and yet seems to carry the feel of the ancient within it.

And that’s the playoff that’s hard to achieve, to settle upon the correct balance. The more you use language, mannerism and character appropriate to the time, the more work the reader has to put in his/herself. If the language is too true-to-era the story might become tiresome for the reader. It can become a slog unless the author is simply excellent at their craft (c.f. Stockwin as above.) Yet to completely ignore historical language tendencies is to risk losing every ounce of historical flavour from your work. You cannot, for instance, use expressions like ‘shooting fish in a barrel’ while writing about the accession of Tutankhamun, unless you want to be torn to pieces by your reviewers.

For myself, I tend towards the more comfortable, modern mode of language, flavouring the text as I can but only where it fits well and does not slow down the pace. There is a danger for an author to be lumped into either the ‘cerebral literature’ category, or the ‘pulp fiction’ one, depending how strongly he or she leans to one end of the scale. For some reason, those who immerse themselves more in historical terminology tend to be thought of as more ‘high-brow’ while those who happily load their characters’ conversations with fart jokes are oft considered more ‘low brow’. This is of course applying unreasonable generalisation, but it happens nonetheless. It is worth noting that, in my experience, the readers and reviewers of historical fiction seem to be more critical and finicky than most other genres, perhaps because there is more that can go wrong with such a novel. But as they say, you can’t please all the people all of the time.

One of the best tricks authors use is to keep the language modern and familiar for the ease of the reader while slipping in quotes, references, expressions and patois of the era to flavour the language without having to restructure all your speech. Angus Donald does this well in his work by having one of his characters regularly utter exclamations that are both humorous and ‘of the time’. A Roman writer can do it with regular reference to the Gods. Forms of address are also very useful for this. Try not to have your centurions call each other ‘buddy’. A Roman slave addressing their owner can use the word ‘master’ for ease. No one would argue. But slipping in the Latin word ‘Domine’ instead of master flavours the whole sentence without too much trouble for the reader, for though they might not know the word, they will get the gist from the context and by the third or fourth usage, it will feel natural. This can, of course, be overdone. If you’re writing the Tudor era, try not to use so many prithees that you turn into Shakespeare’s shadow. The bard wrote beautiful plays, but most readers would find them too tiresome for bedtime reading.

So again, it comes down to balance. Before you even write your prologue, try out a short conversation between your main characters. Write it, edit it, leave it for a day and then read it back. If you come back to it fresh as a reader the next day and it’s perfectly smooth and readable, you’re probably on the right track.

Most of all, have fun. By Bonaparte’s hairy balls, have fun!


I live with my family and two peculiar dogs in rural North Yorkshire, where my wife and I both grew up, surrounded by friends and family. Since leaving University, I have tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even painting and decorating sales. I excelled at not being able to settle on anything. Having written a number of unpublished short stories in my early days, I decided back in 2003 to try and write a full length novel. That was the start of Marius' Mules. Being a lover of Roman history, I decided to combine my love of writing and my love of classical history. Marius' Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum, my attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome. Since then the success and popularity of both has spawned sequels to each work and more, with the fantasy trilogy complete, seven volumes so far in the Marius' Mules series, a complete Ottoman Cycle quadrilogy out and the flagship of a new Roman series – Praetorian – recently released. Find out more on my website and find me on Twitter and Facebook.


To read Simon's first article for us, on bridging the gaps in our historical knowledge with imagination, take a look here