Language & Worldbuilding: SF Benson

While writing All Things Dark & Magickal: Bitter Fruit I had to ask myself the question: how far should my language go? Let me explain.

Arabella Cuthbert lives in 19th century England. Each chapter begins with a quote from the time period. I chose a feminist author of the era, Mary Wollstonecraft, for the quotations. Her writing is rather ostentatious but indicative of 1792. Miss Wollstonecraft is also one of Arabella’s idols, and her speech is patterned after the writer.


Ah! why do women, I write with affectionate solicitude, condescend

to receive a degree of attention and respect from strangers,

different from that reciprocation of civility which the dictates of

humanity, and the politeness of civilization authorise between man

and man?

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


A little much for today’s standards, don’t you think?

You might be asking why would anyone want to introduce that style of writing into a story. One reason only—authenticity!

When I formatted The Glass Watch, I wanted readers to feel like they picked up a book from the 19th century. Check it out:

 

The tone of The Glass Watch is that of Dickens—a little dark and gloomy—which heightens that feeling. I determined that the best way to set the mood for Bitter Fruit was to mimic Miss Wollstonecraft’s use of language. Here’s an unedited excerpt:

“Only someone lacking in education would allow herself to be subjugated in such a matter. I owe my enlightenment not to Mother but to the great authoress Miss Mary Wollstonecraft. She didn’t want women to have power over men but over themselves. It’s a notion that my mother wouldn’t accept. Instead, she continued treating me like a useless waif. Disrespecting what I could do and keeping our family mired in debt and degradation. I was willing to embrace her nescient mind if it kept me from engaging in forced labor. Besides, I had the ability to keep myself warm and fed without any wasted effort.”

—Bitter Fruit (All Things Dark & Magickal)

Did you notice what I did? The term teenager wasn’t used until 1912, so no one will remind Arabella to act her age. After 1823, a girl could marry as young as twelve in Victorian England. Arabella’s use of weighty words would have been totally acceptable.

How do you determine the type of language to use in your story?

First, determine your time period. Even if you’re making up language, it has to fit some era. Once you set the year of your story, you can Google it and discover the point in history.

I’ve determined the time period. Now what?

It’s time to do more research. Use the internet and find out what authors existed during the period. Because I’m writing from a female POV in the nineteenth century, I searched for Victorian female authors. I went with this entry from Google:

http://victorian-era.org/famous-female-writers-of-victorian-era.html

That was my starting point. From there, I looked for public domain works from those authors. Gutenberg.org is a great reference. You can read online or use Adobe Digital Editions to download a copy to read offline.

Congratulations! You found the time period and some great examples. What now?

You’re ready to dive in. Measure the examples against your own writing. Does it stand up? That is, if you’re writing about a kid in medieval times, does your style resemble this?

Geoffrey laced up his breeches, and then reached for his tunic. The air was crisp in the castle that morn.

Or does it read more like this?

Jeffrey zipped his pants and then grabbed his jacket. The air was cold that morning.

If it resembles the second, it’s time to do more research. For this example, I went to Gutenberg.org and found a copy of Beowulf:

Then his pleasant companions carried him down to the ocean flood, as he himself had bidden them, whilst the friend of the Scyldings was wielding words, he who as the dear Lord of the Land had ruled it a long time. And there, in the haven, stood the ship, with rings at the prow, icy, and eager for the journey, the ferry of the Atheling.

Maybe our example should read more like:

It was a particularly icy morn in the castle. Geoffrey laced up his breaches and prepared for the journey to the wood where his friends awaited him.

Not a perfect rendition, but it’s more in keeping with the language of the times. And that is the point of this lesson.

If you’re looking to add a hint of authenticity to your fantasy story set in an ancient time, consider the language you’re using. If it’s too simplistic, you run the risk of turning off readers who might like a little realism with their epic fantasy.

Until next time…

We Write Fantasy Feature Graphics & Profiles

One thought on “Language & Worldbuilding: SF Benson

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! This is amazing and I never would have thought to research authors from that time period, but it makes brilliant sense. One of the things I love reading are letters written by famous historical figures/authors like Jane Austen. You still get the cadence of their speech then, but also the lack of formality.

    And I love how you mentioned incorporating the stigmas of the time, like early marriage. It really helps immerse the reader, like how in Outlander, Gabaldon has her hero shocked to learn his lady love is twenty-eight. Or rather, twenty-eight when in his experience she should look much much older and bedraggled.

    I think it’s a really fine line between going full-on period speech without alienating the modern reader, but you have demonstrated that beautifully. 🙂

    Like

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