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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Historical Voice

Like many romance authors I considered trying another genre. I read historical romance, I wrote historical romance, but I gave considerable thought to writing a contemporary romance, which I did. It wasn’t easy. A friend told me, “You don’t have a contemporary voice, you have a historical voice.”

That gave me pause. What did she mean I had a historical voice as opposed to a contemporary voice? I thought about it a lot. What made my voice so different from the voices of contemporary authors? In fact, what makes a historical voice?

I decided to compare some of the contemporary authors to well known historical novelists. Sharing my findings may be no surprise to you, but they were to me and led to other questions.

What did I find? The most noticeable difference is the dialogue between contemporary characters. That I expected. But I noticed other discernable changes in the use of words describing a scene, a character, a place. There is an ease to the modern novel quite removed from the historical tale. For one, contemporary romances contain clich├ęs, and modern turns of phrase not even known a hundred years ago. But I also noticed something else. There is a more formal approached to the historical story, not something you can reach out and touch, but it’s a real. Words are used in a certain pattern, fewer contractions, more formal address. The age of the words used now counts. The heroine of a historical romance set in the west a hundred years ago would never use the expression, ‘over and out!”

The characters have a tendency, even if it’s a humorous historical romance, to be more formal in their conversations. The heroine of an eighteen century adventure would never tell the hero, “Don’t go there,” if she didn’t want to discuss something.

All this analysis leads to another question. How do you develop a historical voice, and can you accomplish such a task? I don’t have the answer to that, but I have a feeling that the author of a historical novel is someone who thinks of and might even admire the simpler, less complicated life of days ago. Someone who perhaps likes a bit of formality, an individual who enjoys hearing historical tidbits, admires the style and beauty of historical dress and the grandness of some time periods. Someone who instinctively would be attracted to books by Jane Austin, Charles Dickens to name just two.

That doesn’t mean a historical author doesn’t enjoy the here and now. Where would we be without computers, printing presses, POD, microwaves, and the automobile? We’d be nowhere, and I doubt any historical romance author would willing trade a today with yesteryear. But true to the nature of the historical romance writer – we can pretend for awhile and go back in time.

So, how would you describe a historical voice?

Allison Knight
"A Treasure For Sara"
available now from Champagne Books


Kimber Chin said...

I'm the opposite. I would LOVE to write historicals but I have a contemporary voice.

Historicals tend to have more description. They flow more.

My novels are lean. The writing is... I don't know if jerky is the right word, abrupt? No, that's not it either. Anyhoo... I don't write much description at all.

Cynthia Eden said...

I think you've got a great historical voice. Allison. :-)

And I agree with Kimber--I think historicals tend to have more descriptive language.

Susan Macatee said...

I'm kind of baffled on that, Allison. Maybe because my first romance is a time travel where the heroine is from our time, while the hero lives in the nineteenth century. While I have written straight historicals, I don't think I have any real problem switching back and forth. At least, my editor doesn't seem to think there's a problem.

Angelica Hart and Zi said...

We do understand the "voice" issue. Zi often writes most of the contemporary dialouge while I lean toward the voices in fantasy. He has the pulse of today, whereas, Angelica leans toward the more obsure. Neither of us have the historical voice but Angelica does enjoy reading them.

Kathryn Albright said...

Hi Allison,
I have to work hard at times not to slip in the more modern phrasing in my historical stories.

Dialogue, I've found, is so much snappier and fun in a contemporary than compared to a historical. I'd love to keep that edge when writing conversations for a historical.

elaine cantrell said...

I think I have a historical voice, but so far I've only written contemporaries. I have to consciously try to match the cadence of the modern world. Hmm. Maybe I feel a historical novel coming.

Francesca Hawley said...

My first novel is a contemporary paranormal, but I recently sold a medieval. As I wrote the medieval I noticed my historical voice was completely different from my contemporary voice. I didn't set out to make them different, it was naturally there. In fact, I almost think my historical voice is better - but really it's just different. I enjoy writing both. Great post!