07/20/13

Can Language in Any Historical Novel Truly Be Authentic?

My historical fantasy novels are riddled with anachronistic speech.

There I’ve said it. But you know what? So are everyone else’s. Writing a medieval novel using only the language from the middle ages (even limited to dialog), would be asinine. (I had no idea asinine only had one S. Go figure). No one would understand a book written that way. I understand adding medieval flavor to a book. I get that. I do a lot of that myself. And I understand making an effort to avoid expressions that are too modern, another goal of mine. But let’s face it, we aren’t going to write a book in Old English or even Middle English. And most writers don’t know enough about the language of that time period to make a convincing stab at it. My argument is that historical language should yield to clarity.

Look at it this way. I read a period book recently that had all the characters speaking with thines and thous, saying huzza and lavishing accolades upon one another.

There are some authors who really try for that medieval flavor. And I applaud that. I try to add a taste of the middle ages to my writing as well.

 

But if an author tries to be historically accurate by using words like huzza and accolades, then they have failed. More to the point, very few people are really well-versed in the language of the middle ages. So by all means, try to sprinkle medieval seasoning on your mutton, but don’t ruin the meal with it.

Writing a medieval novel using only the language from that time period, would be asinine. No one would understand it.

Take the word huzza. It’s an old favorite at medieval festivals and gaming conventions, but it has nothing to do with the middle ages. Huzza came into use in the late 16th century, by sailors. The word thou is tossed around a lot in medieval novels and, though it was certainly used in the middle ages, it became a sort of insult when using it to address anyone except your close family or your lover. A tiny historical distinction that could put a glaring hole in the accuracy of your book.

Yes, I know. Just two examples. I have more. But I want to state my case here. The people who argue that medieval novels should have dialog reflective of the medieval period usually do so out of a misplaced sense of historical accuracy. When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century. Warlord wasn’t used until 1856.

If a writer has her 12th century minstrel nod to the princess, she has made two historical errors. Minstrel wasn’t used until the 13th century, and princess wasn’t around until the late 14th. Knights couldn’t charge into the fray until the 16th century (fray:14th, charge:16th). Any historical writer who has a character nod, should make sure the character is in (at least) the 15th century, when the word was first used. Want your farmer to pet his cow? Better make sure he’s in the 19th century (Famer:16th, Pet: 19th).

When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century.

But surely there are some blue-chip medieval terms that all historical writers can use, no? I mean, what’s a medieval action story without guards, right? Well, just as long as it’s a 15th century story, because that’s when the word came into use in English. And a knight should be allowed to brandish his sword, shouldn’t he? Only if the knight lived in the mid-14th century or later. The list goes on:

Stop: Mid-15th
Field (as in field of war): 16th
Melee: 1640s (it meant to mingle before that)
Road: 1590s
Groggy: 1770 (and it meant drunk at first)
Cemetery: Late 14th
Hello: 1883
Walk: Late 14th
Shout (as in give a shout): Late 14th
Haggle: 1600s
Rest (as in, rest on something): Mid-14th

Okay, so writers may use some words that are not accurate to the period. But surely we should stay away from words we know aren’t accurate. Modern sounding words obviously don’t belong in a period piece. I mean, you wouldn’t want your knight calling out, “Hey!” right? Or using words like baboon, or calendar or susurration?  In truth, hey and calendar were around in the 13th century. And susurration was around in the 14th. And there are many others

You see, when writing a historical novel, period speech is the last thing you should worry about. The reader knows that you are translating. You are providing a version of the text that is understandable to your reader. It’s the same way with movies. Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. Often, they simply have the characters speak a little of their language, then break into English and it’s understood that they are still speaking their language. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I can hear grumbling out there, and I know I risk being misunderstood. I am not saying that your historical novel should read like a James Patterson book. The reassuring cadence and diction of medieval speech is part of why we read these types of novels. And I think writers should strive for that. I work hard to avoid using words that I know were not around in the time period I am writing in. I do not use expressions/figures of speech that were not around in their day. But how can contorted would my story be if I couldn’t use the word road? Or stop? Or shout?

Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I try to give my characters the flavor of medieval speech, while making sure that readers won’t stumble. Some people have said that my characters sound too modern when they speak; I wish they knew how religiously I check my word usage, and how hard I work to balance accuracy with readability. Do my characters say things in a way that wouldn’t have been said in their time period? Hell yeah. I know that my book would be completely incomprehensible to a person from the 14th century.

But then again, so would any other historical novel.

 

 

03/27/13

The Scourge is Upon Me!

I must admit, I rolled in these and cackled for ten minutes before this picture was taken.

The UPS man gave me the plague today. And I love it!

Twenty-five print copies of The Scourge. I is a happy man. Don’t let the subtle smile fool you. My heart was doing handsprings as the photo was taken.

The first two people to respond to this blog post who don’t live in Connecticut or New York, will receive a free signed copy. That’s just the kind of mood I’m in =)

Let the games begin!

03/17/13

Interview on MarcusTrowerEditor.com

Hi everyone,

Marcus Trower, Copy Editor Extraordinaire

My copy editor and friend, Marcus Trower, interviewed me recently and posted the results on his site today. He explored some interesting subjects about writing serials and The Scourge. Please have a look at the interview. And if you are looking for a copy editor, I don’t think there is a better one out there. He has a wealth of knowledge, is a brilliant fact-checker, and knows more about the English language than Noah Webster. His work on The Scourge made the book significantly better. You can’t ask more than that in an editor.

Click here to see the interview.

01/21/13

Serial – Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

Hey everyone. I did a guest post on Lindsay Buroker’s blog and I received lots of questions about it, so I figured I would talk a little bit more about writing for Kindle Serials, here at my home blog.

First of all, I’d like to define exactly what is involved in serials, so we are all on the same page (screen, for you Kindlers).

I wrote a Kindle-Serial novel for 47North, called The Scourge. A Kindle Serial is a new type of novel that begins life as a series of episodes that are automatically (and periodically) downloaded onto Kindles (or other devices that have the Kindle app installed). A reader pays $1.99 for the novel, and one episode downloads to his or her device every two weeks until the novel is finished. The reader never has to pay for any other episodes. $1.99 covers the entire novel. You just get it a little bit at a time.

But you get the story as it’s written, so if you buy it now, you will get all episodes that have been released thus far, (we’re on episode 5 at the moment), and then you will get episode six on Tuesday, and episode 7 in two weeks, and episode 8 (the final episode) two weeks after that. Confused yet?

Here’s a good example: Let’s say you love The Walking Dead television series (guilty). So you decide you are going to buy the whole season 1. But let’s pretend season 1 is still airing. They are still showing episodes every week and the season isn’t finished. If it were a Kindle Serial, you would get every episode that has already aired, then you would start receiving each new episode at the same time as everyone else. Until the season is over. But you never have to pay for any other episode in Season 1 again. Make sense?

Once all the serial episodes are delivered (the novel is finished) it is no longer a Kindle Serial. 47North turns it into a standard property, which means The Scourge gets an ebook version, a print version, and an audiobook version, and the price goes up. So, in our analogy above, the entire season 1 of The Walking Dead  is over (all episodes have been aired), so it gets turned into a box set and you can watch it as often as you like. But unlike a box set of a tv show, if you paid for the serial as it was being written, you end up with all the episodes as an ebook and you don’t have to pay for the “box set”. Lucky you. Unless you want a print version or audiobook version of the “box set” in which case you would end this metaphor immediately.

So, that’s how the Kindle Serials work. Now, to answer a few other questions I’ve gotten concerning serials:

1. Yes, I have a standard publishing contract with 47North. They created the cover for me, provide copy editing, proofreading and some editorial direction. I received an advance for the book and will get royalties when the advance earns out. (Which it pretty much has already. Yay me.)

2. Yes, The price of the book as a Kindle Serial is fairly low. But the exposure I receive from Amazon is priceless. I am selling far more books with this title than I ever have with my independent title, and I get far more exposure. And, when it becomes a standard property of 47North, the price goes up. Win.

3. Yes, writing this way is difficult. There are many, many challenges, but there are also many, many rewards. I will post on those pros and cons in a couple of days.

4. Yes, working with 47North and Amazon Publishing is a joy. They allow me input into a lot of areas that other publishers never would. What sort of areas? Well, massive input into the what the cover will look like. Input into the marketing blurbs (including bio, synopsis, back cover blurb, and to whom it should be marketed). Their royalties are better than standard publisher royalties, and they pay on a quarterly basis (with ‘standard’ publishers you are lucky if you get paid every six months). And they know how to get things done quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality.

5. Yes, you receive email notification from Amazon when a new episode is available. And no, you don’t have a ton of little episodes cluttering up your Kindle. It is always just one book, it just grows bigger with each episode. Your place is still marked in the book, but you just have more to read. And your percentage read goes down.

Got questions on Kindle Serials or writing serials? Please let me know in the comments. This is a fascinating way to write and I enjoy talking about it.

That’s it for now. I’ll have an Episode 6 post a little later this week (Episode 6 comes out on Tuesday, by the way), then will post more about serials after that. Thanks for reading!

 

 

12/24/12

Print Cover Reveal – The Scourge

Happy day.

47North just sent me a full-cover mock-up for The Scourge. This includes the back cover and spine, and will be used for the print version that will be available in February.

It billows with awesomeness, and I am thrilled with it!  Have a look:

The Scourge’s kick-ass print cover!

As you can see from the back cover text, this was taken from the Latin translation of The Scourge. Okay, not really. It’s just dummy text (Lorem Ipsum text, for that graphic designer street-cred). What do you guys think? Leave me a comment and let me know. Thanks!

12/10/12

The Scourge – Episode 3

Episode 3 comes out tomorrow. It’s a good one, I think. In which Edward leads his army into battle and then faces execution by a mad king. In the spirit of Episode 3, here are some images from modern-day Hadleigh, Leigh (Lighe), and Rayleigh.

What’s left of Hadleigh Castle

Pictured above are the ruins of Hadleigh Castle. The castle is perched on a hill overlooking Old Leigh, and has such a wonderful feel to it. A feeling of power and tranquility and invulnerability. You can just imagine how magnificent it once was.

Hadleigh Castle, as it once was.

That’s what the castle would have looked like in Edward’s day, after an extensive renovation project by Henry III.

The Great Hall

That square area in the mid-ground is the remains of the Great Hall where Edward’s imaginary meeting with Sir John would have taken place. Just beyond the tower, in the distance, is a view of Old Leigh (Lighe).

The Thames Estuary at low tide, at Old Leigh.

This is the Thames at low tide, just off the shore of Old Leigh. The French ships in my story landed here. I’m fairly confident these three ships aren’t French.

Hadleigh Castle, with Old Leigh in the distance.

This is Old Leigh today, at low tide. It’s come a long way from the sleepy little village it was in Sir Edward’s day.

Moving on to Rayleigh. This is Rayleigh Motte, the hill where the tower once stood. During Sir Edward’s days, there probably wouldn’t have been much left of the castle. I chose to extend Rayleigh’s life a few decades in the story, although it was nothing but a “dung-pit” when Edward finds it.

Motte and Bailey

Motte to the left, bailey to the right. You can still walk the entire castle grounds at Rayleigh Mount, although nothing is left of the stone tower or the buildings.

Rayleigh Castle, how it was

That was how the castle would have looked in its prime.

 

Church on the hill

St. Clement’s church sits on a hill in Leigh-on-Sea. It is the church that Edward talks about and that he and his knights ride onto. There is a rumor that this church was built using stones from Hadleigh Castle, but I doubt it. King Edward III had made major renovations to Hadleigh in the late 14th century and the castle wasn’t sold for building materials until the mid-16th century. St. Clement’s was built sometime circa 1400, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it might have been around in 1385, when Sir Edward came by.

If you are reading The Scourge, I hope enjoy this episode. It’s one of my favorites. And I hope these photos help flesh out the world that Edward and his knights are traveling through.

 

 

Save

Save

12/2/12

Learning to Right…uh Write

When I started my writers’ group about three years ago, it was mostly as a favor to the all the other writers in my geographical area. You see, I was a *professional* writer. My career included a three-year stint as a reporter and long stretches as a freelance writer and magazine editor. I had a page-one feature article in the Boston-freakin’-Globe, for Pete’s sake. So, in an act of charity, I decided to allow other writers to read my fiction.

Am I not a merciful?
AM I NOT A MERCIFUL!!?

I promised myself I would be a father figure. When others discussed my work, I would politely ignore the tears of adoration in their eyes. I would be humble and graciously downplay their praise.

When finally it was time for my work to be reviewed, I scheduled another story for that night too. Because, really, what was there to critique in my work? There was only so much gushing I would allow myself to take.

The night arrived and the group gathered. I waved my hand in a Pope-like manner, allowing the critique to begin.

And they tore me apart.

“Do you realize that you have three pages of a guy riding a horse?” one of the writers said. “There’s no talking or anything. Just a guy. And a horse. And bushes and shit.”

I smiled. Ah, petty jealousy. I love it.

“Yeah, I cut most of that out too,” said another. “You’re story really doesn’t begin until page six.”

The night wore on. Page after page after page of suggestions. A few compliments sprinkled in here and there, but mostly constructive critisicm. This wasn’t petty jealousy. This was bad storytelling and bad writing.

“Do you realize that you have three pages of a guy riding a horse?” one of the writers said. “There’s no talking or anything. Just a guy. And a horse. And bushes and shit.”

I smiled. Ah, petty jealousy. I love it.

It didn’t matter that I had spent half my life writing professionally. It didn’t matter that I read more books in 7th grade than most people read in a decade. It didn’t matter that I placed second in a state-wide short story competition in college. It didn’t even matter that I went to school for journalism and creative writing.

Writing good fiction is, quite possibly, the hardest thing anyone can ever do.  (With the possible exception of forcing yourself to sit on a really, really cold toilet seat.) When you are writing fiction, you are having a hand at God’s work. Designing and creating and breathing life into something that is only an idea. Just wisps of thought that must be turned into reality. What a colossal pain in the ass! (The creating, not the toilet seat.)

Sometimes I hold my bowel movement for days.

Despite the magnitude of the task we take on, there is no room for arrogance when you are learning to write. As the Tao Te Ching states, “You will never be a great writer until you understand that you are a terrible writer.” Okay, the Tao never said that, but it should have.

“You will never be a great writer until you understand that you are a terrible writer.”

I read a popular blogist’s post once that told people they don’t have to write every day if they can’t find the time. That’s the most destructive thing anyone can say to aspiring writers. We are all looking for reasons not to write. Excuses. And he gave his readers permission to not take their craft seriously.

The truth is, if you want to succeed at anything, you do it *every day.* You work on it harder than anything else in your life. Because you can bet there is someone else out there working harder. If you can’t find time to make writing a priority, then maybe you really don’t want it.

It has been three years since that first writers’ group session. Three years of hard toil and hundreds of thousands of written words. And you know what? My group is still tearing me apart.

Their criticisms are smaller now, thankfully. More nitpicky. They talk mostly about things that fall into my blind spots. Things that can only be seen from another perspective. Which is as it should be.

My writing mechanics have improved. My storytelling and pacing have improved. My dialog, always my strength (I think), has improved as well.

Am I a great writer now? No. I won’t make the mistake of thinking that again. But I recently signed a publishing contract with 47North for my novel, The Scourge. It’s a sign, that I have improved, and a nod to the writers’ group that tore down my pretenses and allowed me to become a decent novelist.  They were the ones doing me the favor.

And I thank them.