AKA The blog entry on historical accuracy that doesn’t say anything you haven’t heard before, and is really more of a cry of despair and a rant and something else that I’m not sure how to talk about.
So, I’ve got a part of this book set in 1217 England. My characters didn’t speak English, but French, kind of (with a smattering of other languages thrown in, all of which have gone the way of the dinosaur).
So, from the start, I’m translating reality to a modern reader. And not even translating reality, but translating as close to a reality as I can understand it as I read about it in books that are from the twentieth century talking about history in terms that the 20th century authors can understand.
Do I go to source materials? Of course. I try, anyway. Trouble is, I need another translator to understand them.
Take, for example, Chretien de Troyes’ “Knight of the Cart“. I’m referencing it in the book for several reasons: it is an example of what (troubadours, at least, or their lady patrons) thought courtly love and chivalry was (which would, in turn, have its effect on my idealistic knight-hero) and because it is an early story of Lancelot, and the whole “young handsome knight in love with his liege’s wife” thing fits this part of the book pretty well. As my hero and his married lady love have recently returned from two years hiding in the Angevin courts while John lays siege to the husband’s castle in Essex, I figure they’d know the story as well.
Or his Tristan and Isolde. Or any of a billion others.
So I read de Troyes, trying to get a sense of a translator’s sense of structure, language, blah blah blah blah blah, keeping in mind that troubadours were famous for writing in verse and meter that was different from any other verse and meter out there.
And, I have to keep in mind that the translation was written in 1914, by a person whose idea of that time period was likely heavily influenced by Sir Walter Scott and Ivanhoe. And whose use of language was also (probably) influenced by Ivanhoe. Because although Chaucer’s language would be, chronologically, the best (most academically familiar) version of English to translate (or at least the most contemporary of de Troyes, give or take a century or *cough* two), it would be freaking ridiculous.
Which is a long way for me to say: my characters, in reality, would never have said a freaking “nay” or “aye” or “’tis”.
But they ARE saying that. And I’m not sure how to get around it. I need to have my characters speak differently as they travel through time (the story spans 800 years, they aren’t time traveling in the Highlander way), and I find myself falling back on romance conventions–specifically, conventional romance genre language–to indicate that difference and that change. There is something to be said for rhythm and sentence structure in creating a sense of place and time (I’m basing quite a bit of it on Latin construction, as much as I can without sounding stilted and grammatically incorrect–because, quite simply, modern American English (which I’m writing in) does not lend itself to Latin construction very well) but I find that to secure the sense of time through language, I end up using those conventional cues: words like “aye.”
So I’m writing in convoluted modern English and using words which are, at this point, almost a parody of Ye Olde Englishe (which my characters, being descendents of Norman nobility, wouldn’t have spoken) and which, in turn, are actually more Early Modern English than REAL freaking Middle English, which none of us would understand anyway.
Does any of this matter? I don’t know. I’m not as much concerned with, when the book comes out, cries on the message boards of “historical inaccuracy! They didn’t use “NO” in Middle English!” as my own sense of frustration, and trying to balance verisimilitude (in a story about freaking demons and vampires) and accuracy and storytelling, when true accuracy is impossible and unreadable. And my need to differentiate between time periods by using language codes that, when it comes down to it, are all false.
I’d be more worried about inaccuracies like, “hey, Essex is freaking FLAT, yo! Why you got that castle up high on the top of a freaking huge mountain?” or “why you got a milkmaid sitting above the salt?”
An aside: I’m not going to freaking mention the effing salt at all. I’m so TIRED of hearing about the salt. Or the rushes. Just like I want to kill myself everytime I freaking read about the watery lemonade at Almack’s. Just freaking ONCE I want to read a Regency where some rake spikes the lemonade and all the ladies are like, “Oh, this lemonade is so STRONG!” and then they get so drunk they have a massive Almack’s orgy and screw the rakes and have cunnilingus with the chaperones and all end up with syphilis. I always feel like the lemonade is a tired, tired in-joke between readers/writers of Regencies that says, “WINK! I mention the lemonade and the Four in Hand club so you can tell I did my research, I’m so authentic, giggle.”** Or maybe I’m just ranting now, I don’t know. Sometimes these references are so seamless, I don’t notice them (even the lemonade!). I do know (according to my research, anyway *g*) that if most Regencies were perfectly authentic, many of those ballroom and drawing room conversations would have been written in French.
And, for a uni-lingual ignoramus like me, that makes for tough reading.
ADDED AFTER THINKING MORE:
**Okay, this is a cheap shot. I can’t imagine that authors–any author–doesn’t do the research. It’s the application of it that often annoys me, but I understand how these references get pushed in when maybe they shouldn’t, because they have nothing to do with the story except as a wink.
I struggle constantly with the question of “how much info do I include? What crosses the line between world-building to infodump?” If I mention that Hugh was knighted early because a baron wanted to have a greater show of strength at Runnymede, do I have to go into detail about why? Or does an Author’s Note, or even a tidbit on a website, cover that? But this runs into expectations of reader knowledge, and that discussion might make me tear my hair out. A historical has as much world-building as sci-fi, but with historical instead of scientific theory driving the setting. (Or a contemporary, for that matter, as every detail chosen creates a specific setting, class, and so on.)
And some, like me, after they do the research, make mistakes (see upcoming novella for mistakes caught, but not caught in time to fix.) Contradictory evidence abounds, and sometimes we choose the wrong stuff to write into our stories. And other times we do the fact-checking, but we check the wrong facts (sure, he doesn’t eat tomatoes, but whoops! is that a fork?).
And there are plenty of things which I’ll deliberately get wrong: the language, for example. It’s the language of an alternate universe, because it sure isn’t the language of 1217-this-universe. On a larger scale, the whole story is a deliberate wrong. I’m building an alternate universe where, for my writing comfort and reading comfort, things are wrong–but written that way so that they feel authentic, and right, according to certain literary conventions. And that is a problem and conflict I struggle with internally, but eventually have to make a choice to buck that convention or give in to it–and considering alternatives, I give in to it. Is that what I’m saying?…Yeah. Yeah! I think so.
Also, maybe that all of this has more to do with literary conventions than historical accuracy. Heyer did a buttload of research, sure–but she wrote her books through an early 20th century lens. And yet many Regencies are based on her literary model, and her books are hailed as the epitome of “accuracy”. Romance literary conventions call for a American native as noble savage, the English-hating fiesty Scottish heroine, and the Regency lemonade–and when a book deviates from those expectations (often in the name of historical accuracy) the hue and cry is raised.
Anyway. I just don’t know. I’m not out to write the same (part of a) book someone in the thirteenth century would have written, anyway. And as a reader, historical inaccuracy (in the linguistic sense, to a certain point–no Regency guy should say “dude,” but sex-for-genitals gets a pass from me; and getting easily-verifiable dates wrong really needs an Author’s note) doesn’t bother me as much as a lack of characterization or uneven characterization (or using a setting and research to provide character for a person, rather than giving the person a character.)
Yeah. Anyway. I write “anyway” too freaking much.