Diction – 1

So much in writing depends on making choices, and one of the main choices we must make in writing historical fiction is what level of language to use. John Gardner in The Art of Fiction defines this as ‘diction’ – our choice of words. The basic choice is coarse (which I shall call ‘churlish’) or fine (‘noble’). One of the great attractions of writing historical fiction is that it gives us the opportunity to use noble language that our own age no longer gives us, unless we want to sound very affected. Because of this impoverishment of modern language, in ‘flashback’ novels – novels which are set in our times but flash back to the past – the modern story can seem very thin and dull compared to the historical story. See Peter Ackroyd’s otherwise wonderful The House of Dr Dee.
There are two areas to consider. One is dialogue: how our characters speak to each other, and with what level of language. The other is the narration: how does the author speak about the characters and events? Both require a choice to be made on diction. Let’s deal with the second first, as it is easiest. Here are some examples:
1. He hath writ much
2. He’s written a lot
3. He has written much
The first is a parody of period language. The second is modern colloquial. The third is an authorial contrivance to suggest the first – let’s call it ‘blended diction’. You can guess which I’m going to recommend, can’t you? The third is usually the safest and most successful route.
Play time! Write three versions of each of the following statements in the periods of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries. Try and think of what people of the time really would have said, judge whether it is appropriate and use your own words if necessary:
He arrived this morning
She is pregnant
She combed her hair
He put on his trousers
Example for the day (what of I leave to you to determine):
His tightly woven mantle kept off rain most nimbly, for I could see that it was greasy and the drops that fell from the branches were disperpled by it. Adam Thorpe, Hodd.
In the next posting we’ll look more at ‘blended’ diction.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. You know, I was looking at these examples you gave:
    He arrived this morning
    She is pregnant
    She combed her hair
    He put on his trousers
    and realized I had no idea how I would write them differently for each of those centuries. Could you show how you would write them? 🙂

  2. Dear Maggie,
    There are no hard and fast answers to my questions. They are designed to promote thought and more questions. To start you off, let’s choose ‘She’s pregnant’. In the bible it would say, ‘she is with child’. With a quick turn – well actually a short walk across the room – to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, I see that ‘pregnant’ was a word in use by the 1540s, but there are no examples of its modern usage then. They would still be saying ‘with child’. Which period are you working in? The trick is to find two books – one written at the time, the other a piece of modern fiction set in that period which you admire and trust – and to look for your answers there.
    My mentor had me date every word in my first novel using the Shorter English Dictionary. EVERY WORD. It took months but was an education in itself.

  3. I need to get one of those Shorter Oxford English dictionaries! I use encyclopedia ones that give the original etymology of a word but are not as specific in dating all the different usuages. Thanks for the tip!

    1. ‘Shorter’ is a relative term. It’s two big books! But good luck hunting a set down – a priceless addition to a writer’s library. Linda

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