Help Please! Prose In US Historic Fiction

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PMBligh

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Apr 26, 2018
London
Hello all,

So I've just started writing a novel based in 19th century Southern USA. The dialogue will of course be in line with how they spoke at the time in the area it's set in, but what about the prose?

Several issues:
Should it be contemporary or have more of a 19th century feel to it?
Should I use US grammar/vocabulary? (I'm British and will be sending this to British agents, initially for a British market.)
Should I use US spellings?

I'm just 2 chapters in, and so far I've gone for using US grammar and vocabulary but with UK spellings, and it's style is sort of an accessible version of 19th century language rather than being too contemporary.

Does anyone have any advice on if this is the right or wrong thing to do, or what works for you and doesn't when you're reading or writing historical novels.

Thanks,

Phil
 
Hello all,
So I've just started writing a novel based in 19th century Southern USA. The dialogue will of course be in line with how they spoke at the time in the area it's set in, but what about the prose?
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It's an interesting question. I'm writing something set in the 18th century, and I have gone for full-on authenticity in terms of language & vocabulary, both in dialogue and narration [but I am writing in first person, which obviously makes a difference]. I've taken it to the point of including period words that you'll find in no modern dictionary (most enjoyable) with the proviso that I have somewhat simplified sentence length and construction -- partly for the modern reader and partly because I suspect (but who knows?) that your average Georgian spoke rather more succinctly than your average Georgian wrote. But regarding your question, maybe it depends on your market and whether your readers can cope with slightly archaic English throughout. To me, it would jar to mix period dialogue with modern narration, at least I think it would, but maybe it could be made to work. Proof of pudding, etc...
 
BTW, regarding spellings, I'm not sure if UK / US spellings had diverged that much by the 19th century, certainly not at its beginning.
 
I agree it would be jarring, hence me deciding on prose that matches the style of dialogue. It's more the use of Americanisms in the prose that I can't decide on. And is it strange that I'm using American grammar and vocabulary but UK spellings? It would just seem too bizarre to me to start writing 'color' and 'organize'!
 
BTW, regarding spellings, I'm not sure if UK / US spellings had diverged that much by the 19th century, certainly not at its beginning.
Yes, you're probably right, actually.
I think the main thing is that whatever rules and style I choose, I just need to stick to them, and hope nothing stands out as ludicrous.
 
So I've just started writing a novel based in 19th century Southern USA. The dialogue will of course be in line with how they spoke at the time in the area it's set in, but what about the prose?
Short answer: It's up to you (pithy, unhelpful answer).

Longer answer (and I'm no expert here – just another hopeful – but my one finished novel is historical, so I've wrestled with similar questions): Do what feels right for the type of novel you're writing. When you come to pitch this to agents (assuming that's your intention), which novels would you compare yours too? How were they written? Take them as your cue.

More non-expert thoughts:
Should [the prose] be contemporary or have more of a 19th century feel to it?
See above. But this also depends on the narrator's voice. Is it third-person omniscient, close third, first person (or something else)? If it's third omniscient, you can afford to give the narrator a voice and write accordingly, or you might choose to have a more neutral and modern voice. If it's close third person, you'll want to make the narrator disappear and have the prose echo the POV character's voice. If it's first person, it'll be the POV character's voice all the way.

But again, I'd be looking at novels similar to yours to answer this question (and if your novel isn't like any others, you might have problems convincing an agent or publisher that it's commercial – but that's a whole other kettle of fish!).

Should I use US grammar/vocabulary?
I think that if you answer the question above, this one will answer itself.

Should I use US spellings?
Your choice, I reckon. If it's eventually sold internationally, your publisher should take care of this. Having said that, it seems your novel increasingly needs to be market-perfect before an agent or publisher will touch it. Having said that, I have a feeling that being consistent is more important than the choice of spellings you make at this stage. You can't predict the in-house style of the publisher you'll eventually sign with.

For what it's worth, if I was going to write an American novel, I'd use American spellings (and undoubtedly someone would tell me I was wrong to do so ;)). :)
 
Thanks Rich, most of that tallies with what I was kind of thinking. It's written in close third person, so I think you're right, that will dictate the kind of language used as I go along. The pithy, unhelpful, 'It's up to you' may actually be the most important note there! I reckon as long as what I write isn't completely jarring to readers and I stick to the grammatical and spelling rules I set up for myself I should be fine.
 
I had similar problems when writing two short stories featuring a traumatised American Civil War veteran travelling through the Appalachians two years after the war ended. He's on his way to Atlanta (where I lived for three years) to help his sister rebuild her plantation, which was ravaged by Sherman's notorious March to the Sea, in which he pursued a scorched earth policy.

My stories featured a self-educated protagonist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an ex-Union Army cavalry officer, with an interest in literature, the son of a noted leader of the Cherokee nation and a mother who was an escaped black slave, along with assorted ex-soldiers and freed slaves from the Deep South. Apart from using local words to describe things, including colloquial phrases, I had to make a judgement call about how much phonetic writing to do. I wanted to make conversation sound authentic, without appearing patronising or slowing the reader down.

A lot of research was needed for these stories, and offhand, I'd say that the American Civil War and the period of Reconstruction are easily the most complicated historical era I've ever tried to understand. It took me as long to write a 30,000 word short story as it does to complete an 80,000 word novel. As an example of how I tackled dialogue, here's an extract taken from Down From The Mountain, in which my hero Art Palmer has been captured by a guerrilla fighter, a veteran of the infamous Quantrill's Raiders, an illiterate, uneducated redneck who goes by the name of Bolt—owing to having been hit by lightning which fried his brain and scarred his body with Lichtenberg figures:

Bolt snapped himself into life, removing a thin-bladed filleting knife from the tool roll.

"I gave yer that tea to make yer talk, but yer've said nary a word. Yor panniers is empty, so yer've hid your stash somewhere. Tell me and yor death'll be easy. Otherwise, it's yor tongue for me...or, I'll give it to Jubal—he can sew it in his pie hole. Would you prefer if I cuts yor prick off first? All the same to me!"

Bolt gripped the fly of Art's trousers ripped outwards to expose him, buttons popping off, as he gave an experimental twirl with the knife, like the conductor of an orchestra.

"Tongue-prick-prick-tongue-tongue-prick-prick-tongue or p'raps yer'd prefer me to take yor purty lips? Will yer say something, yer fuckin' useless blue belly! I'm going to eat you, boy!"


You might get some ideas from this website: Southern Ghost Stories, Folktales, Storytelling: The Moonlit Road.com

Don't forget Reddit, which has many, many groups on Southern language, culture and history.
 
I wanted to make conversation sound authentic, without appearing patronising or slowing the reader down.

Yes, phonetic speech is another issue I've been wondering about. I read The Adventures OF Huckleberry Fin, where Jim the escaped slave speaks entirely in phonetic sounds rather than recognisable words. Now, this gives you a really fantastic idea of his voice and the thickness of his accent, but it's quite difficult to read and, I think, would come across as pretty racist if written today. So yes, I'm trying to find the middle ground, and I think you've done it admirably with that excerpt, though I kinda wish you had shown me an except where one of your characters wasn't about to get their penis cut off!

Thanks for the link to The Moonlit Road. I'll check it out.
 
My first questions is.. Why? US history in the 1800s? We're jerks and you're picking the jerkiest time of all, if you don't count right now.

If you're submitting to the UK market I'd use UK English and vice versa. This is for spelling and punctuation. It seems in the UK one quotation is used for direct speech.

As far as the dialogue, I'd use American Southern syntax and idioms. Ick. Have fun with that.
 
My first questions is.. Why? US history in the 1800s? We're jerks and you're picking the jerkiest time of all, if you don't count right now.
Ha! It was a jerky time, but there’s a specific story I heard about that happened during the Civil War that I wanted to write about.

I think I agree with you on the rest - UK spellings in the prose with Southern US syntax and idioms in the dialogue. No need for “ick”, it’s gonna be fun!
 
I recently a friend's novel set in the civil war in US, that was finally taken on by a US publisher (the author is american). He used historical language in the dialogue, and contemporary prose (but no ultra modernisms), that obviously worked for him. The publisher asked for some tweaks in the writing, but loved the story - epic stuff: nobility, death, loss, some battle scenes, a love interest during which the lady died, but the soldier survive, etc.

I think the bottom line is, write the story how it feels best to you - you're the author. As to US/UK spelling, it can always be changed.
If the agent/publisher likes the work they will not be put off.
 
I think the bottom line is, write the story how it feels best to you - you're the author. As to US/UK spelling, it can always be changed.
If the agent/publisher likes the work they will not be put off.
Yep, I think you've nailed it. I think that's what I'm learning from the responses to my original question.
 
I know that it's a worry for writers while creating their story, that they'll be influenced by reading books which tackle similar ground, but four titles I found useful in researching my own Civil War era short stories were:

*White Doves at Mourningby James Lee Burke—any of his crime stories featuring Dave Robicheaux are a worthwhile read, set in Louisiana, they give a real feel of the state.
*Good Time Coming by C. S. Harris—really good at depicting the lives of innocent civilians threatened by an invading army.
*Neverhome—by Laird Hunt—startling and entirely believable tale of a farmer's wife who pretends to be a man to join the Union army.
*The American Civil War: A Visual History—full of amazing photographs, in well-organised sections.
 
I know that it's a worry for writers while creating their story, that they'll be influenced by reading books which tackle similar ground, but four titles I found useful in researching my own Civil War era short stories were:
That's great, thanks Paul. I've actually been looking for more novels set in the era so this is very handy.
 
Don't forget Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders. It's quite extraordinary in its structure, and very moving. Should you tackle it, I recommend doing so in decent chunks, to keep track of the various dead spirits who flit across the pages, sometimes only for a couple of sentences.
 
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