Back somewhere deep in the mists of time, I published ‘Pitfalls for Writers 1’. In this, I discussed some of the potential problems of language in a novel.
If I am to write a story of medieval Persia, for example, I will write it in English. No one who reads it is going to be fooled into thinking that my characters were really speaking in English. But this on its own is not enough. There must be something in the language I use that reminds the reader that the story setting really is medieval Persia.
And so I suggested using a flavour of the speech. I might sprinkle the conversation with words such as ‘dirham’ (a unit of currency), or ‘djinns’ (genies). The characters might smoke a ‘qalyan’, which is how they would have referred to what we generally call a hookah. A greeting might be ‘Salām ʿalaykom’.
In the comment stream that followed, I concluded that I might employ a glossary, but certainly not footnotes.
This has now become most relevant to me.
About a month ago, I finished reading Anuradha Roy’s ‘The Folded Earth’. It is a novel that is set in India, written by an Indian writer, yet it uses a glossary, although she is presumably writing in the first instance for an Indian audience. This glossary explains a few words and phrases that many western readers would be unfamiliar with, although I would expect the majority of Indian readers to know them all.
My own novel is being read now by generous beta readers, and some of the discussion is over the use of the appropriate Hindi / Urdu words in the text.
And so, with ‘The Folded Earth’ as an example, I shall definitely use a glossary.
Next, it is important to employ the correct voice.
Clearly, if the protagonists of a story are sitting down to a meal, they might complain about the amount of fat on the meat, but they would be most unlikely to refer to it as ‘adipose tissue’. Unless one or both were, for example, surgeons.
Very few people would be likely to refer to two items as being ‘in casual juxtaposition’. They would be far more likely to say something along the lines of ‘oh, they look a bit odd next to each other.’ As tempting as it might be for the author to show off their vocabulary, it is something that should be used most carefully.
If the story actually has a narrator, then this becomes even more important. The country bumpkin relating an everyday tale of rustic shenanigans should not be employing sophisticated and subtle wordplay. He or she should only be employing language that they would naturally use.
Even if there is no actual narrator, it remains important to use only language that would be natural to the situation. For example, it sounds plain wrong to describe a group of Vikings ‘computing’ an answer to a problem, even if it is only the author describing it that way.
Generally, of course, and I know that some will disagree with this, it is usually better to avoid all flowery and showy language in novels, and use simple language well.
Finally, a jarring note found in a few modern novels set in older times, is that the characters often think like modern folk. Reading these books as against books written, perhaps, 150 years ago, it is not just the style and language of the writing that are different, but also the prejudices. The hero of a novel set in 1840 is going to have casual prejudices against, perhaps, people of another race, women, etc etc. We tend to be reluctant to set these down in print, nowadays, perhaps as if by doing so we are almost admitting to having these prejudices ourselves.
However, if we want to depict our characters realistically, we need to do so ‘warts and all’. And if the writer is going to depict them otherwise, then he or she needs to have a good reason why they do.