History and Diction

I’ve been reading through a lot of Regencies in my TBR lately, and one thing I notice frequently is the diction. I go back and forth a lot on the issue of historical diction.

To me, diction is the base layer of historical fiction. It’s the foundation, or perhaps the foundation garment (heh). If the diction is right, or sounds like it’s right, the reader is more likely to trust in the “reality” of what she’s reading. And isn’t that one of the main goals of fiction? For me, it is.

But there are a lot of different ways to approach diction in a historical novel. It’s something the writer has to think about, how accurately she tries to reproduce the actual speech and style of the time she’s portraying. She’s writing for a modern audience; no matter how much research into vocabulary she does, and how many primary source documents she reads, she cannot escape that she is a modern person with modern speech patterns. How much time should she devote to accuracy? And does strict accuracy always serve the story?

Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to be completely accurate. Even if the writer was completely accurate, how many people would be able to tell? (Aside from the time travelers who stopped by the 21st century to purchase reading material.)

I’m not sure you should have pitch-perfect diction for a goal when you’re trying to tell a story, not if it gets in the way of the story. The difficulty is deciding where inaccuracies do get in the way of the story.

Diction slips are more likely to catch me when I’m reading dialogue. It’s easier for me to overlook very modern words in narration because I can consider that part of the author’s voice, if I squint (or without squinting, if the author’s voice is strong enough). The characters’ voices are a different matter. I don’t expect a Regency gentleman to say, “Dude! That sucks!” Even though I haven’t done a lot of research into the Regency, and haven’t read huge amounts of the contemporary literature (Jane Austen being a notable exception), even I can often tell when the diction shifts in time.

Some readers, however, are infuriated by diction mistakes, even rare ones. It’s a fine line to walk for both writer and reader.

What’s your opinion on the matter?

Published by Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen’s writing showcases her voracious lifelong love of books. She reads over 120 new books each year, especially historical romance, fantasy, and space opera, and incorporates these genres into her erotic fiction. Her first erotic novel, The Duchess, Her Maid, The Groom and Their Lover (Harlequin Spice, December 2008), was translated into French and German. Her second Spice novel, The Moonlight Mistress (December 2009), was translated into Italian and nominated for a RT Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award. Her third novel is The Duke & The Pirate Queen (December 2010). She has also published erotic short stories as Elspeth Potter. When not writing, Victoria conducts research in libraries and graveyards, lectures about writing and selling erotica, and speaks at literary conventions on topics such as paranormal romance, urban fantasy, erotic science fiction/fantasy, and the empowerment of women through unconventional means. Her daily writing blog features professional writing and marketing tips, genre discussion, book reviews, and author interviews. She also guest blogs for Heroes & Heartbreakers and The Criminal Element. She lives in Philadelphia.

2 replies on “History and Diction”

  1. I can’t say I’m a stickler for diction, but too many Americanisms and modernisms do stick out like a sore thumb. However, as you said, we writers of historical fiction (romance, mystery, etc) have to walk a fine line between authenticity and accessibility, and each author should approach the issue based on their comfort and/or skill level.

Comments are closed.