Friday, December 28, 2012

Classy Language


For some time I've been increasingly uncomfortable with the language that modern writers put into the mouths of historical characters. While I acknowledge that stories must be written in a style that readers find easy, there are times when a writer's personal vocabulary could benefit from being channelled to mark out a character's lifestyle and personal circumstances.

Georgette Heyer plundered cant and slang dictionaries for her lower-class characters. For example, in The Toll Gate her highwayman Jerry and people who associate with him have a quite different vocabulary from that of Captain Staple, who is the son of an aristocratic family.  (However it's not a good idea to copy Heyer's expressions, because in the same way that modern computer programmers build-in redundant code she also invented her own colourful phrases to check how many rivals were plagiarising her work.)

Historic correspondence

Original letters suggest that even during the Regency and the reign of William IV, everyday polite English between people of the educated class was surprisingly like the language we write today. A glance at the correspondence between William Wordsworth and his wife Mary in the early years of the 1800s, or the letters from 1829 onward between a young lawyer, William Holt, and his fiancee Mary Cox, shows that sentences were typically long, few contractions were used (can't, won't), and the & mark often replaces and. Other than those stylistic points the language isn't noticeably archaic. Most of the time they use the formal "you" when addressing each other, and use "thee" only when writing of more intimate feelings.

Spoken language

There's considerable difficulty for writers in researching spoken language, because recorded conversations even in works such as Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor are filtered through the author's hand. They are probably a factual record of what was said, but they are not verbatim transcriptions. A further difficulty in composing historical conversations is that regional phrases and dialect would have been even more strongly localised than they are now, yet we don't want to make a character's dialogue totally incomprehensible to modern readers.

U and Non-U

In 1956 the terms 'U' meaning Upper Class and 'Non-U' meaning non-Upper Class appeared in Alan Ross's academic paper for the University of Birmingham: U and Non-U – An Essay in Sociological Linguistics. Nancy Mitford also wrote about these differences in 1956 in Noblesse Oblige.

There are some interesting distinctions made, notably the fact that the vocabularies of working class and upper class were similarly robust and forthright, while it was the middle class who used "delicate" phrases involving euphemisms and French words. This may sound strange, but compare the following lists. Which words will be in the vocabulary of the upper class, and which of the middle class?

drawing room
sitting room
looking glass

Food for thought

While some of the terms above are relatively modern, for historical fiction I hope the point is still clear: upper class characters shouldn't express themselves in fancy language, any more than working class ones should. The characters who do will mark themselves at once as middle class.

Good writing for an English "period" story should reinforce my belief in the society being described, and when the author writes about aristocrats in a way that is unmistakably middle-class, s/he loses my trust. This, in my observation, is a point where a good many modern writers (and especially writers who are not English-born) fall down.

Further reading

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hesitation waltz

I was reading out a poem in the writing class.

“Maybe the workmen
knocking down the old long-house
to build upon its footprint
stopped to help… ”

I saw out of the corner of my eye the tutor make an impatient movement. However, she waited till I had finished before she pointed out that “perhaps” and “maybe” have no place in poetry.

“Every word has to count,” she said. “If something’s uncertain, dig deeper. Dig until you find out why you’re not certain – is it you or is it something else? And if so, what?”

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I was beta-reading the draft of a novel (not one of mine). Every now and again I came across a phrase using “may” to imply uncertainty:

She wanted to stay, but common sense told her there may not be any news for some time

I don’t mind the construction of the sentence, but I want to put “might not” there. May is present tense, might is past. The Oxford English Dictionary ( says:

Some people insist that you should use may (present tense) when talking about a current situation and might (past tense) when talking about an event that happened in the past. …  In practice, this distinction is rarely made today and the two words are generally interchangeable:

I might go home early if I’m tired.
He may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.

With all due respect to the OED, I think this confuses the issue. The second example reads like an extract from an essay or an academic paper, in which an author’s thoughts are usually present tense. The present form, may, is acceptable in that context even though the sentence discusses events in the past. However, in fictional narrative where the commonest tense is the past (he did this, she did that), the past form of “might” is going to make more sense.

She hoped he hadn’t recognised her, because he might cause trouble.

With the tutor’s advice in mind I usually step back when I rewrite, and try to find another way of putting the same ideas without using this phrase. This first version only suggests that the main character is timid. I might (oops) rephrase it by writing more fully:

She hoped he hadn’t recognised her. He’d been violent in the past and she was afraid of him.

Getting around the need to use either may or might results in the second version which gives us a background for her anxiety. It isn't always necessary but small edits like this can prevent us jolting the reader out of their belief in what we are writing and also offer the chance to add extra depth to our story.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

COACHMAN - a spare chapter

Not all the scenes I wrote for COACHMAN made it into the final form of the novel. Here is an extract that might have been part of the final chapter:

The day they travelled north it was a sharp, bright morning, a day on which George was impatient to drive and irritable at the thought of sitting on a train with nothing to do. To make things worse, Lucy had remembered the smoked and sooted confinement of second class railway travel, and insisted he wore his oldest coat. Its shabby appearance laid another smudge across his mood.

A four-wheeled cab waited in the street with their belongings packed on the roof, the damaged writing case among them, strapped up with an old belt. However, George would not trust his whip up there, and carried it as always with the long lash looped and tied.

Mrs Bowe had wrapped herself in a shawl to lead the farewells. Tom Thetford stood by with a stolid face, and observed the fussing as though determined that no-one should have hysterics while he was about, while Mrs Bowe made sure that Betsy had securely wrapped her few possessions for the journey. Betsy herself was bundled inside a secondhand coat so large it appeared to be wearing her.

‘Now you girls,’ said Mrs Bowe, not really making any distinction between Lucy and Betsy, ‘look after yourselves, and make sure this coachman fellow does the same. I know what these driving men can be like. Betsy – you imp – behave yourself when you get to your new home – it’s a crying shame you leaving me to instruct a new girl from scratch – but it’s your good heart, I know – and I had rather see you go and look after Mrs Davenport than get yourself into trouble with young Robbie.’

‘I never went with ’im,’ muttered Betsy. She pretended to be engrossed in stepping on and off the doorstep.

‘I should think not,’ said Mrs Bowe. ‘I told you, you’re not allowed to have followers. You’re much too young.’

‘E’s walkin’ out with Lizzie Pearson now, anyway.’

‘Stop fidgeting,’ said Lucy.

George, with a wink at her, nudged Betsy’s shoulder. ‘There’ll be a score of sturdy lads come knocking at the door when we get to Kendal.’

‘Only if you introduce them to me first,’ said Lucy firmly, ‘and I arrange what evenings they’re allowed to call.’

‘There now,’ said Mrs Bowe, ‘that’s very fair, that is.’

‘But we shan’t let you hobnob with any old riffraff,’ added George. ‘They’ll have to present calling cards.’

‘Don’t be so foolish, Mr Davenport!’

‘Well, how else are we going to keep track of ’em all?’

Betsy giggled, and Mrs Bowe said, ‘Don’t give her ideas. Oh, dear, Lucy – I shall miss you! Go well and safely, my dear. Breathe deep of that north country air. I’m sure you’re going to have a beautiful healthy baby.’

‘I’ll write to you,’ promised Lucy, and hugged her, and all three women clung to one another.

‘Damned if I’d like to be seen carrying-on in the street,’ said Thetford, and turned to discuss the cab horse with George. ‘There’s been some quality there, y’know.’

‘Showing his age in the hind fetlocks, though.’

‘Ah!’ agreed Tom. ‘Well... I daresay it’s a good thing you’re leaving.’ 

George glanced at him, surprised by his quizzical tone. ‘I have to follow the work, if that’s what you mean.’

‘No. Not entirely. Seems to me there’s a young woman we both know, as gave a fair show of jealousy when she worked at the Swan. I recall as ’ow she come out special-like to travel with you on the Albion.’

George reddened, in spite of himself.  ‘She did.’

‘Kind of flattering, but I ’ope you didn’t do nothing about it.’ The wise old eyes gave nothing away.

‘I warned her off, Tom.’

‘I ’ope you did, for Mrs Davenport’s sake.’

George realized that Tom guessed what had happened, but the old man was a realist. Making a fuss over the truth would benefit no-one. As along as nobody asked him directly, he knew Tom would keep his suspicions to himself.

‘Mrs Davenport knows,’ he said, ‘And as for the young lady – she’ll get over it.’

The cabman, his gaze fixed on the horse’s ears, stolidly observed, ‘If yer party’s wishful to be at Euston for the ten o’clock train, better get in now.’

Tom took the hint, and shook George by the hand. ‘That proprietor in Kendal will be lucky to get you. I wish you all the best, I do, heartily, and Mrs Davenport and the baby too.’

George returned his handshake, liking the old man better than ever. The two of them stood irresolute for a moment before he said, ‘Well, I’d better disentangle these women, or we’ll be here the rest of the morning.’

Mrs Bowe startled him with a hug and a hard kiss on the ear, and when he escaped to help Lucy into the shabby interior of the cab, she showered advice on Betsy.

‘Remember to make yourself useful, gel! Get up early and don’t be to call – you riddle the fires and sift the ashes... make life easy for Mrs Davenport...’

George settled Lucy in a forward facing seat, and put Betsy opposite, where she sat excitedly waving farewell to Mrs Bowe and Thetford, even before the driver called to his horse and they set off. Lucy held her head high and felt for George’s hand, all the while staring rigidly out towards the great dome of St Paul’s. He knew she was struggling not to cry, and gave her tense fist a reassuring little shake.

He wasn’t sad to be leaving London. It wouldn’t be long before Sherman and Nelson and other less canny proprietors realized, as Chaplin had done, that the railway was an implacable competitor, and then they would sell out too, and the coach routes would die, and as they died he would have to seek work in more and more remote areas, and compete with more and more drivers out of place. He’d come here with an ambition to make his name, and instead he’d found that the best part of his driving career was over.

Lucy’s hand in his was a trust he mustn’t betray again. He wasn’t an irresponsible youth any longer, who could move on at a whistle and travel light.

They passed the Queen’s Hotel for the last time, and the Post Office, and somewhere in the clustered buildings behind it, the Swan. He watched as the cab bore him away, until it turned the corner into Newgate Street, and he couldn’t see even the buildings any more.

The complete book is available here: (Amazon USA)
or (Amazon UK)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Writer’s Monday

8.30 am
Feed starving cat and pony. Muck out stable. Note that it has snowed, but the snow is thawing.

9.00 am
Sit down at computer.
Send email to wife of celebrity asking for article for charity publication which I had volunteered to edit.
Condole by email with elderly friend in Australia, who has paid me previously to do various editing jobs, but is feeling very poorly today.

9.30 am
Check writing forum web site, another volunteer job. Discover 11 spam messages selling kitchens and one sarky verse from a member about same.
Grind teeth.

Go into admin panel and delete spammers and messages. Reset 4 lots of forum permissions to disallow new members from posting without approval.
Breathe sigh of relief.

10.00 am
Discover that resetting forum permissions doesn’t trickle down to individual categories. Go back into admin panel and reset seventeen categories.

10:30 am
Email forum owner to tell him what I’ve done. The only writing I’ve done so far this morning.

10.45 am
Catch husband on the point of departing with neighbour’s Land Rover and give him two customer book orders to be posted (pre-paid order, packed yesterday and postage paid online). A GOOD THING.

11.00 am
Field phone call from one of son’s idiot friends who would like to bring a 45 foot wagon trailer and do a changeover in our yard. Tell him that said trailer will not fit, and so neither will its changeover friend. Discourage idiot boy from calling again. He will.

11.10 am
Postman delivers, snow having melted sufficiently to allow him to get here in Royal Mail van. Retrieve post, hoping to find parcel of paper bags ordered a week ago ready for a farmer’s market bookstall on Saturday. No bags.
Open envelopes.

Elderly archaeologist with a fixation on a Roman cavalry settlement in Lancashire sends 2000 word article for perusal and comment. Last corresponded 8 years ago.
File in pending tray.

Legal Deposit Library communication from Edinburgh requesting 5 copies of 2 books for Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Oxford and Cambridge. This is A Good Thing, but it’s at my expense, not theirs – A Bad Thing. Luckily just to one central address so postage not horrendous.
Contact Print on Demand service and send order through for delivery.

Local Literary group requests me to go and talk to them on topic of my own choice. They will PAY me! A VERY GOOD THING.
File in pending tray.

11.30 am
Email from Pony breed society asking me to update their web site with advertisement and photos. A Moderately Good Thing – they pay. Update site.

12.00 mid-day
Need coffee. Discover husband’s melted snow boot prints across kitchen floor.
Clean floor and redecorate tracks from door to Rayburn to fridge to chair with thick glossy, coloured pages of health products catalogue. I knew they’d come in useful.

12.30 pm
Sit down with coffee and oatcake to write blog – the first creative thing I’ve done all morning.

1.00 pm
Blog written. Must write back to the Literary group.

1.15 pm
Email from web client, with photos, requesting update of site with offers for January.

Phone call from Pony breed society requesting photos from  last issue of magazine, which I edit - another volunteer job.

1.30 pm
Thinks: Will the Literary Group believe this?