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?

About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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2 Responses to 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.

  2. That’s another one – Americanisms in, say, Regency historicals, or Britishisms in historical Westerns.

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