‘Words , words, words – on language in Historical Fiction’ by Snorri Kristjansson
Hello, readers of Draumr Kopa! My name is Snorri Kristjansson, and unless you‘re one of the 310.000 or so Icelanders on the planet or a keen student of the Icelandic Sagas we‘re already off to a rocky start. In truth, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever encountered the name ‘Snorri’ before now, so you might be asking totally natural questions like:
‘…is that even a name?’
(yes it is – Old Norse, roughly translates to ‘Warrior’ or ‘fierce in battle’ as far as I know),
‘…how do I pronounce it?’
(like the words ‘gory’ and ‘hoary’, which explains a lot)
and ‘…I wonder if he is aware that in my language that word means-’
(yes I am. All of them, thank you very much. And they’re hilarious).
The oddness of the name may be a great conversation starter – “I’m Icelandic. Well, I’m glad to be the first one you’ve met. Yes, we do have electricity. No, no eskimoes, or ‘ekskimos’ as you so charmingly put it. No, we’re not bankrupt” and so on – but it can also be a barrier, creating suspicion, worry and a demand for explanation. Had I been named John Smith, for example, you’d be much more likely to go “…ah. John Smith! I wonder what he’s up to today. Good old Johnny Smith.” The fact of the matter is that for an overwhelming majority of people I meet my name is not only slightly odd in a foreign sort of way, requiring my boyish good looks, youthful charm and witty repartee to compensate, but it is also anachronistic – not of this time period.
Now imagine reading a 95.000 word book where every fourth word is that kind of barrier. It doesn’t sound immediately enticing, does it? When I sat down to write my first book, Swords of Good Men, I faced any number of questions. Would there be enough tea? Would anyone ever want to read my writing? And what do Vikings sound like? The first two have been answered – yes, and happily, yes – but the third one is a bit tricky. A number of answers suggest themselves, such as “If you can tell, you’re already dead”, but they’re not immediately helpful. Through all kinds of mazes and alleyways the question I ended up wrestling with was whether to write Vikings ‘true to the age’ or make them resonate more with my imagined reader, which is really the question of how big you make your barrier – the choice between anachronism and alienation.
Being a consummate people pleaser who is quite likely to walk into a café and order ‘whatever’s convenient for you’, I obviously chose anachronism. I wanted my characters to speak to each other with what would translate as easily as possible to the reader as immediacy, thus maximising the chance of getting swept away with the story. Still, I couldn’t quite commit to writing ‘Lethal Weapon, but with Swords’ – as an example I got it into my head for some reason that I would not refer to minutes, seconds or hours as that would be a little off. While I am now proud of having managed to avoid it, there were not a few moments when I roundly cursed Vikings for having left ‘watches’ off their impressive list of world innovations.
What I ended up with was a book that reads, according to critics, fast and at times simplistic, but is (according to me) free of overly purple prose and unnecessary period frippery. I am of the opinion that writers of Historical Fiction need to serve the story first and show their homework second. In a recent discussion on Reddit/r/fantasy about language in the Mistborn novels, author J.S. Morin pointed out that to a certain extent all fantasy novels are anachronistic – if they were to be ‘properly’ written we’d have shelf upon shelf of the illegitimate love child of Beowulf and Shakespeare, and despite my learned background I am in no hurry to seek out such literature. I agree with Morin – as I found out while writing ‘Swords of Good Men’ there is a sliding scale between ‘period-perfect’ and Vikings saying ‘dude’. Just to warn the purists and historians out there, my book slides towards the latter – but it does also have some tasty historical details in there. You have been warned.
With a friendly wave of the axe,
Posted on September 4, 2013, in Guest Post, Snorri Kristjansson and tagged Guest Post, Historical Fiction, Jo Fletcher, Language, Quercus, Snorri Kristjansson, Swords of Good Men. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.