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Authorial Voice In Historical Novels, by Jane Johnson

Finding the voice that conveys the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it is the key behind the writing of all fiction, but there are perhaps more minefields for the writer of historical novels to pick their way through than any other genre, except perhaps epic fantasy, with which the genre has a great deal in common.

It can be fatally tempting to show off your knowledge of the period in which you’re writing by peppering your work with an immense number of historical words and phrases, to adopt an archaic tone or sentence structure to remind the reader that they are in a different place and time. And the surfaces of fiction can be very addictive. You can self-edit and embroider to your heart’s content, tightening your prose word by word until you tie yourself up in knots, or until the reading experience is like wading through treacle. Oh, you may want to avoid mixed metaphors too.

Believe me, I know the dangers, and have come across these errors as an editor and tumbled into these pitfalls a writer! But the trouble is, there really are no rules. So much of the voice in which a historical novel is told has to do with personal taste. Just take a look at the four examples below, taken almost at random off my bookshelves:


“Are you asleep now?”

“No. Thinking.”

“Thomas,” she says, sounding shocked, “it’s three o’clock.”

And then it is six. He dreams that all the women of England are in bed, jostling and pushing him out of it. So he gets up, to read his German book, before Liz can do anything about it.


“You ain’t a bad dancer at all, Kit. Dashed if I don’t think you’ll shine ’em all down!”

“Oh!” cried Kitty, a little out of breath, but triumphant. “Do you think so indeed, Freddy?”

“Shouldn’t be at all surprised. What I mean is, when you’ve rid yourself of this devilish trick you have of treading on me every now and then.”


“Go to bed, you.”

I tell her to take a lamp to the library.

“What you work on?”

“Tragedy,” I say.

“Hey, f*** you. You don’t want to tell me, I’m nothing, don’t tell me. Your wife tell me the other day, maybe. She like to talk.”

My wife likes to talk? “Goodness.”


As their pursuers swarmed after them he bombarded them blithely with geranium pots, chanting, “Ding ye the tane and I the uther” as she helped him, so that children screamed and dogs barked and a man in his night shirt, opening shutters, discharged an arquebus into the night air and dislodged an entire family of Jupiter, Ganymede and an eagle from a cornice. “A sangre! A fuego! A sacco!” sang out Francis Crawford: and seizing her hand, set off running again.

In what period is that first small scene set? You’d be hard pressed to know from reading it out of context: this could be a married couple from any time in history, or from a completely contemporary novel.

On the other hand, the second excerpt feels very specific (to me) in its time and setting: the phrasing, the use of archaic terms – ‘dashed’, ‘shine ’em’, ‘devilish’ tells me we’re firmly in the Regency period.

Example three, though, with its use of an Anglo Saxon expletive and its modern phrasing could easily throw you off the scent of its time and setting.

Excerpt four, adopting the most mannered style of all, tells me a great deal more about who the author is, if not necessarily the setting or period.

All four of these very different writers are quite brilliant in their own way, and all have the confidence and experience to tread dangerous paths through their own personal minefields. Two of these writers (2 and 4) are known for the arch playfulness of their authorial voices – an extremely dangerous game unless you are quite a virtuoso in the use of language, and completely at home in the period in which you set your stories. I don’t recommend it to newcomers! And it must be said, it requires a good deal more concentration and investment on the part of the reader.

The other two writers (1 and 3) have opted for a first person, present tense narrative, and at the same time a very economic, simple and contemporary voice. It’s a device I adopted for the telling of The Sultan’s Wife, and it’s really useful for plunging the reader immediately into the reality of your historical world, and into the head of your protagonist – particularly useful if you are voicing your story through a character who might otherwise be tough to identify with – in 1) Thomas Cromwell, in 3) Aristotle and in The Sultan’s Wife a black eunuch in the Moroccan court.

But experiment to your heart’s content: it’s huge fun playing in the enormous sandpit of history, and no one can tell you what to do: your authorial voice is yours and yours alone. Trial and error is your best policy, so go forth with a brave heart and a sharp sword, or an arquebus, or a QWERTY keyboard, and good luck!

So, have you guessed the titles and authors of the excerpts I chose?

1. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

2. Cotillion, Georgette Heyer

3. The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

4. Checkmate, Dorothy Dunnett


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The Tenth GiftThe Salt RoadThe Sultan's WifeThe Secret Country    Beat the Drums SlowlyPhantoms in the SnowCommand

Writing Historical Novels


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