Within the limits of history

When I first submitted THE SKIN OF WATER to an editor, amongst the series of jolts there were comments about the appropriate use of language. THE SKIN OF WATER is a romance set in Hungary during the late stages of WWII. Early in the writing I’d considered and reconsider the way to represent the characters’ speech acts.

They would have spoken mid-Twentieth Century Hungarian. But I was writing in early Twenty-First Century Australia, using a modern vernacular of English. But more importantly, I wanted a global audience for the work. It had to be convincing to all English-speaking vernaculars.

The first thing I decided to avoid was modern jargon. No one could say something as hackney or trite as, “Not on our radar” or, “We’re all on the same page.” And I had to take out the down-under expressions like, “G’day” or, “Chuck another shrimp on the barbie”. No. I don’t think they had barbies in Hungary during the war.
Secondly I’d not use contractions. No can’t-s, don’t-s, he’d she’d or I’ve-s. These full expansions would give a formality to the speech which would represent ye-olde-worldliness. Humm….

And to further add to this old world significance, I would aim for a formalness of expression. “How shall I bear such happiness” and never “Okay. No worries. Sweet.”

And so I wrote my eighty thousand words.

My editor took aim and punched the doughy text down. POW! The dialogue was stiff. It sounded like something the Queen of England spoke and not a hormone-up-ed, seventeen year old Hungarian boy courting a thirty-nine year old French woman. She argued that I was asking modern people to read a modern text. There is a reason some/most people find reading Eliot’s Middlemarch as onerous. It’s large in every sense but at a textual level, descriptions plunge to the minute, sentences ramble and have to be unscrambled (let’s play how many down-ranked clauses can you find in a paragraph) and the dialogue is stiff.

Okay… so where do we go from here?

She recommended I use all contractions. As usual, I baulked. Does Hungarian grammar allow a contraction like “can’t”? Well, after some consideration, does it matter? However my characters would have spoken, it would have been a modern Hungarian vernacular, full of the words, the jargon and the temper of the times. Okay – let’s go with the contractions. It’s modern speech and that’s easier for a modern reader and represents the idea of modern language use.

She also recommended that I cut back some of the description of people and place. I’d laboured many hours to find the interiors of buildings, streetscapes and places and now I was being asked to hack these back. After many long hours of consideration I remembered stepping out of a bus onto Manhattan for the first time. What struck me the most, apart from the Chrysler Building, was that I already knew Manhattan, its sounds, the steam coming from the sidewalk, the pace, the look, the feel. I’d seen it so often in movies, in a sense, I knew it.

Movies have provided scene setting in such detail that a modern reader is not like Mary Shelley’s reader, being taken to the Artic for the first time. We know what these places look like, better than Shelley, and at different time periods as we’ve been taken there by camera. I’m not saying writing doesn’t need to place things, but I think it needs to be much less that Hardy and Dickens. Just a whiff to evoke something special. The modern reader is pushed for time and distracted by many other forms of media. Don’t bog them down. Keep the reader reading.


  1. This was an eye-opener. My current WIP is a historical, and much of how I’m trying to invoke about 1930s NYC is drawn from classic film and eyewitness accounts in reference documents.

    1. Hi Kayfey – it’s hard decisions you have to make – I always try to remember that I’m writing for a modern reader. There would be heaps of films set in NYC in the 1930 – you should saturate yourself with that dialogue. My present project is set in France in 1869 – here I go again…

  2. Interesting article! It must have been hard to put in all that work and then have to make so many revisions. I do think you’re right, though, that tastes have changed and modern readers struggle with the sort of heavy description that classic novels employed. Movies and TV are the prime influence – they put us right in a scene, and readers expect that too. I suppose the trick is, as you say, to give just enough description to help the reader see the scene, without overloading it. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece!

    1. Hi – I found it on AMAZON – I’ll see if I can find it here. You can get Kindle books on your iPhone, but having a Kindle is great. I’ve been away from home a lot over the last 18mnths and having 100s of books with me all the time has been a boon. And they are so cheap now. I still love the feel of a book but…

  3. Brilliant insight. I rely heavily on my readers having a universal knowledge of settings.

    My problem with using contractions in my historicals comes from the fact that most Regency fans will slay me for using them. But to keep my stories from being too stiff, I use contractions in the narrative/inner dialogue, and keep the stuffiness for the actual dialogue. Since the book was just released, the jury is still out–readers have yet to start leaving reviews.

    1. I guess Regency is another step back in time. I think what you’ve done is a good idea – when I read Austen or something from that period, I have to slow down to read it. I don’t think readers of contemporary fiction are prepared to do that

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