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One thing that often annoys me in historical fiction or fantasy books is the dissonance between the writing style and the events and historical period described in the book. The writing is usually very modern, it's fast-paced and uses modern idioms and phrases. By contrast, I love reading works from the time periods themselves, as they often have a very interesting style. Just think of The Odyssey and how weird it is in comparison to a modern novel, or the Old Testament or Don Quixote.

When writing my novel, I would love to emulate the style of the period that I am writing about. I would actually like my narrator to be a character within the world, a sort of historian who describes something that has happened in his world. And from time to time, he might add personal opinion etc. So this is even more reason why the book should be written stylistically fitting.

However, I am worried that this will be off-putting to readers, who might actually interpret this old way of writing as "bad style", or find that it borders on parody. I love the Khaavren Romances by Steven Brust, which are basically parodies of Alexandre Dumas' D'Artagnan Romances in a fantasy setting, exactly because the writing style fits the setting so well. But he gets away with it because it's supposed to be funny at times. I want to make a book that's more or less serious and dramatic.

So how can I avoid this uncanny valley and make it clear to readers that this is done on purpose, and how can I get them to like it?

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    Nice question! Please check out our contest and join in. This question qualifies! writing.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1810/… – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 22 at 15:38
  • It's worth noting that it's only recently that readers have come to expect modern sensibilities in historical fiction. At one time, that seemed very bold and experimental. – Chris Sunami Feb 22 at 17:44
  • "Too Like the Lightning" by Ada Palmer does something like this, using an old-fashioned writing style (though it's set in the future) – Tin Man Feb 22 at 21:36
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    If I understand correctly, you are describing precisely what John Fowles did in his wonderful The French Lieutenant's Woman which is both set and written in the style of the 19th century, while simultaneously being very modern. If you haven't read it, that might be a very helpful book to read (and it's a masterpiece, so that helps). – terdon Feb 23 at 1:02
  • You are essentially asking, is it possible to write in the style of Dumas, and if I do will people like it? Well, that's an absurd question. Of course it's possible, because he did. And of course people will, because his works are still popular. There are no recent translations of Dumas: the popular ones are all 19th Century translations. But his quality as an author comes through despite the poor quality of the English. It probably flows much better in French. But even in badly written English, it has a certain charm. And you can probably write better than his translator could! – Ed999 Feb 24 at 10:54

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There's multiple pitfalls to consider here:

The first is the Uncanny Valley concern you mention in the OP - actually being able to write in the style of the time period to a suitable level of accuracy. Depending upon how far back you go it's not going to be far off attempting to write in a foreign language like a native speaker! By no means is this impossible - but it's going to take a significant amount of work.

The second is the question of whether doing so will alienate potential readers - and there's going to be potentially several reasons this might do that:

  1. I'd expect preference for an era-appropriate style is likely to be a relatively minority opinion - I confess I don't have stats to back that up but anecdotally I've heard people mention the inaccessibility of the language used in period pieces as a negative, they read the period works in spite of this rather than seeing it as a positive.

  2. Lack of authenticity - amongst fans of a particular form (whether it's in writing, art, music etc) there is commonly a distaste for recreations, no matter how well the style of a celebrated period may be imitated they know it's not the "real deal". I don't share that view personally so I admit I don't fully understand quite why it bothers them so much (when I've asked people to explain it I tend to get shrugs or comments of "But it's fake!" or "It's just so cheap!")

As you note regarding Steven Brust's works slight parody or comedy buys the author a great deal of leeway with the audience and more or less negates both of the above but that's not what you are aiming for.

Finally you express concern that the reader might consider it a "bad style" - well that's a distinct possibility. Nostalgia not withstanding there's a reason why styles and artforms evolve over time. The inconveniences of a Ford Model T might be charming in some contexts but I'm not about to swap my daily driver for one!

The framing device of using an in-universe narrator is a good one - and probably your best bet. It's a little gimmicky but will definitely get the notion of intent across and will provide a "justification" for why the style is used that will make sense to the reader.

how can I get them to like it?

You can't - people will like it or they won't. If you're aiming it for people who share your preferences then write it as best as you can for what you would like and you just have to accept that people like you will like it and others, well, won't. But that's okay - no work is going to appeal to everyone, that's not the point.

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    To add to the anecdotes, while I love Brust's Taltos series, I quit Khaavren after a few chapters, solely due to prose style. And while I've read Dumas, I agree I read Dumas was because it's Dumas - not because of the prose style. I've gotten into various Austen/Bronte-like fantasy recently and seen the same thing. While I appreciate the faux-historical characters, settings, etc. I'm not going to slog through antiquated prose for an author without Dumas/Austen-level quality and cultural relevance. -- But de gustibus, etc., and if you're targeting people who want historical prose, go for it. – R.M. Feb 22 at 15:43
  • @R.M. In my opinion, what you were reacting negatively to in Dumas was not the quality of his prose. You were not reading his prose! All the popular editions of Dumas are 19th Century translations of his works, in the main written by a translator with very little ability, absolutely no comprehension of French, and no literary ability in English whatsoever. Unless you read him in the original French, which I much doubt, you were reading a pale imitation of his prose style. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 11:09
  • ... It would be easy, but probably unpopular, to prepare a competent modern translation of his work, without sacrificing the period charm or introducing anacronisms; but literary critics are perhaps too used to the poor quality Victorian translations. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 11:09
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In art, there are essentially 2 ways of creating a new work in an old style.

RETRO – attempts to preserve all aspects of the old style, including the themes and techniques that were appropriate to the time. a "retro-noir" film will be set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. It will incorporate themes that were explored in the original works, like political machines, graft, a "chump" or fallguy as the MC, deceit and betrayal in personal relationships. Essentially it is a new (original) work that could have been made during the era of the old style.

NEO – takes the overall tropes, affectations, and style-cues from the original, but is consciously transposing that style into the modern era with commentary, juxtaposition, heightened or exaggerated representations, and a structure that is inherently more like contemporary media. A "neo-noir" film might play with a trenchcoat detective and a femme fatale, but they are exaggerated becoming more a commentary on how the trope evolved over the decades, rather than a realistic or naturalistic evolution.

Retro recreates the past, Neo re-invents the past. There will be inevitable blurring and crossover between these concepts, but for authorial intent it may be helpful to understand when you are invoking one and not the other.

  • In that case, I'm going for a retro style. Only that I don't want to go back to the 1930s, I'm actually thinking of biblical times. – PoorYorick Feb 22 at 13:26
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    @Spectrosaurus But what would be the style or language of the biblical times? There are old translations and there are modern translations. And then the original languages, very inaccessible today. – Vladimir F Feb 22 at 17:57
  • Retro is certainly the better option. Neo usually fails for one major reason: it invariably comes across as parody (even if that wasn't the intention), i.e. as if the author is deliberately sending-up the subject and treating it as comedy. If you are trying to write it as comedy, that is easily the most effective way. If you're not, that's the pitfall you're trying to avoid. If you want an example of how to write in a Biblical style, yet avoid that pitfall, read The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, especially Volume 3, The Return of the King. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 11:37
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The big question here is whether you want an old-fashioned style, which is relatively superficial, or whether you want to emulate older modes of story-telling at a deeper, structural level.

If it's the first, all you really need to do is avoid anything that feels conspicuously modern, emulate period sensibilities, and sprinkle it with a light dusting of period language and details. That's enough for it to be fun and engaging, without it getting too annoying. Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a very successful work largely in this mode.

If it's the latter, keep in mind the result may not seem old at all --it may even seem startlingly fresh and new. Because using very old modes of storytelling IS innovative.

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    That's a very good point. I hadn't consciously made a distinction between style and storytelling. Thinking about it now, I'm more interested in the storytelling part of it. My examples in the question are all literature that I find compelling because of its structure, not only because of its language. – PoorYorick Feb 22 at 18:03
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    @Spectrosaurus Yes, I thought so based on how you worded your question. My advice would be to focus on the structure and let the style take care of itself. – Chris Sunami Feb 24 at 0:57
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There are many elements of style, of the narrator voice, that have changed over time. @ChrisSunami talks about this, and brings the example of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel - one example I was going to bring. Let me give you some other examples, with the various effect they produce.

The translation of the Aeneid that I have standing on my shelf is a translation to Hebrew, that has been done using the language and turn of phrase of late 2nd Temple. (Contrary to what some might believe, the language is perfectly accessible. We Jews just have to be an exception to every rule, so we went and preserved a language virtually unchanged for 2000 years.) Such a translation choice sort of makes sense - the Aeneid was written around 20BCE, so translating it to the Hebrew of the day is not a total case of "what were you thinking?!".
While the language was that of 2nd Temple Judea, the style was of course that of Virgil - it was, after all, a translation.
The effect of such a text is not unpleasant, but it is weird. Words and expressions are used in ways they have not been used before - turns of phrase I have only ever seen in the context of one particular prayer, for example, are turned to other uses. The use makes perfect sense, but the weirdness is still there, even towards the end of the epic. At times, it threw me out of the reading entirely, and I stopped to observe the effect the words created. (I do not consider this necessarily a bad thing. But it is a thing that happened.)
This could be an effect you might wish to deliberately invoke. Still, you need to be aware that this is the effect that will be produced if the language you use is too old and context-specific.

A completely different example is The Lord of the Rings. The language Tolkien uses is not particularly antiquated. It doesn't strike you as either "modern" or "old", except when he seeks to invoke a particular effect. What Tolkien takes instead into the story is sensibilities that belong to a medieval ballad rather than a modern novel. He introduces characters, and tells us about them straight away, instead of letting them reveal themselves. The men in his story are "larger than life" in their heroic resolve and feats of arms, the women possess an unearthly beauty. They all act on "callings", not on whims. It could almost be argued that the hobbits are the only real, flesh-and-blood humans there, and they have somehow strayed into an ancient ballad.

Think of style not as one thing, but as a combination of elements. For each element you can decide separately whether, and to what extent, you want to have it "period" or "modern". Various uses of each element are possible, producing different effects.

I would agree with @Amadeus that stepping out of the language-style-sensibilities modern comfort zone would place more demands on the reader, making the reading somewhat "harder". However, I believe it also has the potential of being more rewarding, if you make good use of the tools in your hand. (Consider The Lord of the Rings as an example.)

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    +1 from me. I will note that, in Lord of the Rings (and in agreement with you) the Hobbits seem like humans. I think that is intentional, they are the MC and Tolkien needs his readers to identify with them, and share the adventure through them. By making Hobbits the "most normal" he can filter the magical world and ancient cultures through these more relatable people. In a way, they become the "stranger in a strange world" that experiences for the reader Tolkien's tour of Middle-Earth (in the form of a dire quest or mission, but a tour nonetheless). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Feb 23 at 12:09
  • When talking about Tolkien, it might be helpful to point up the distinction between The Lord of the Rings, in which (most of the time) the language is not much different to that of the 20th Century era in which he was writing it, and The Silmarillion, in which the language very much seeks to emulate that of the Biblical texts, and is much less easy to follow. In one of his books published posthumously, edited by his son, there is a humorous (well, I thought so) letter from a fan who makes exactly that complaint about The Silmarillion. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 12:15
  • The hobbits, in particular Frodo, are very much the stranger in a strange land: it is through their ordinariness that the reader experiences their wonder at the extra-ordinary characters and events they encounter when they leave their own land. They are also our guide, on an extensive travelogue around Middle Earth -- but most heroes in fantasy or science fiction (or historical fiction) perform this function. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 12:39
  • Well, preserved, but on paper. It was a dead language for a long tame, artifficially reviveed in modern times. – Vladimir F Feb 24 at 14:32
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Is it possible to narrate a novel in a faux-historical style without alienating the reader?

Presuming you mean "the majority of readers", I don't think this is possible.

Most readers of fiction enjoy getting into the "zone" when reading, absorbing the story almost as if they are not reading, their imagination is fully engaged and the reading is effortless.

I do not think that is possible when the reading is work, when it doesn't meet their expectations of a modern story.

That said, I think you can stick to modern words that had equivalents in your time, and skip the modern idioms. You can look up both etymology of a word and the often the idioms.

Personally, when writing for medieval times, I eschew all idioms and make up my own.

You can also stick to attitudes, beliefs and science that is plausible for the time, these are easy to research.

But that is the limit of what I would try. I would make the prose and dialogue, minus modern words and idiom, easy to read without breaking the reverie of reading.

In my opinion, for the majority of readers, if the reader has to struggle through archaic grammar, or spelling, or words no longer in use or with different meanings, even one per page, they will give up and quit reading. I don't think they expect a novel to be work.

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    As an example the Cadfael books are written in a style that attempts to imitate 12th century English. While I love the Cadfael series it is a BEAR to read. I have to read every sentence 3 times to parse out what the characters are saying. Worse than the Silmarillion. – Arluin Feb 22 at 20:13
  • As someone who has read (and enjoyed) all 21 of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, I'd like to say a word on her behalf: she is always careful to avoid archaic words or language. The elements that might perhaps be thought "difficult" by younger readers don't seem so to those of us who grew up in a world where Medieval history was still commonly taught in schools (even though Latin was not). She does use material that benefits from a general familiarity with the history of the period, so readers who aren't familiar with her chosen historical setting might have to work out her meaning. – Ed999 Feb 24 at 11:54
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Your best bet may be a first person narrator.

If your narrator is a character anyway, then the limited POV shouldn't be an issue.

With 3rd person narration, even if it's from the POV of one specific character, the narrator usually has a voice similar to that of the reader and it can be weird or off-putting to instead give the narrator the voice of the characters. That's not always the case, but you've pointed out cases where it is a problem.

Not all historical novels even have dialogue like the time period. But if yours does, a first person narrator would be expected to share it.

You might also consider the story within a story method.

If the narrator is telling one or more people about the events (which can be from that morning or last week or 20+ years ago), s/he would speak in the style of the times. This won't preclude the narrator being a character in real time. This is the sort of method that can be done poorly and stick out, but can also be done such that the story telling sounds like any other narrative book.

All that being said, be careful if you're recreating what you think is the way of speaking of "Biblical times." Not only was the language different (not just "not-English" but ancient versions of whatever language was used at the time) but we simply don't know the way of speaking. The narration is much later than the action and the style was not folksy or meant to be descriptive of the times.

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Include Excerpts written in the old style

You say you want to focus on a character who recorded his lived experiences. This character could narrate their experiences in 1st-person reliable past-tense in a modern style, but then occasionally include excerpts from their diary as they write it, possibly in a 1st-person present tense or 3rd-person unreliable past-tense. Like this:

I found him pinned under his horse, bleeding from his shoulder where a spearhead
had slipped under his armor. I checked his pulse. Dead. I took out my quill and
laid the parchment on the flank of his horse:

On this the ninth day of the ſiege of CaſterWyne, I find before me the Noble Lord Granger, slain by the pikemen of ArchWood. Riding fearleſsly he fell upon the enemy and was knocked from his horſe. His armor is stained with blood and his noble crown,

I stopped writing. His crown wasn't there. I looked all around. It wasn't anywhere.
My pulse quickened. I grabbed the parchment, not caring if the ink smudged, and
shouted for the commander.

This would have a bonus of letting you show things about your character through the differences of what he writes in his diary vs how he describes it as a narrator. I didn't mean to when writing it, but the main character of my example doesn't seem too bothered by the death when he finds the lord, but then writes about it as if it's very tragic, revealing that he is writing probably not only for himself to read. Also if you have both modern style and old style describing the same event, you are effectively providing a Rosetta Stone that can help the reader learn to better understand and appreciate the old style.

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This is absolutely possible--with the old caveat that you can't please everyone. One great example is Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin Series, which managed it over thirty-something years and twenty books, and has become something of a cult classic. These are set in the Napoleonic wars, and narrate the friendship and exploits of two men, one an English ship captain in the Royal Navy and the other an Irish-Catalan doctor who goes to sea with the former to escape poverty on land. Narration is generally third-person limited (with lots of dialogue and some journal-entry or epistolary sections) and the narrator, as well as the characters, strongly echoes a period author's word choice and structure.

There are three lessons that I would draw from this example:

  1. In terms of writing style, don't be afraid to go all-in. O'Brian's works fit the period extremely well--it's often said that they read almost like actual period books. Write it well and your audience will come along with you. You will turn off some readers, this is inescapable, and it may dampen your commercial prospects, but if it's the story you want to write, do it. Be aware that if you want to get the tone right, you'll need to immerse yourself in writings of the period you're using as your inspiration, to the point that you find yourself adopting those turns of phrase almost without realizing. But needing to do research is inevitable if you want to do something convincing. (You don't have to be bound to write what you know--the world isn't hurting for navel-gazy middle-class litfic novels about grad students in writing programs--but it's absolutely essential you make sure you know what you write.)

  2. But don't let the period language dominate the story or overshadow the characters. One of the things that makes these books so loved is that the characters remain very distinctive, both in terms of their personal idiosyncracies and the way their speech reflects their (social, national, ethnic, educational, class etc.) backgrounds. Make sure that your different characters speak and act like different people, and you'll do a lot to cut through the hypnotic "sameness" that can sometimes come from writing in an artificial style.

  3. And finally, don't forget that every period experiences and expresses diversity. Different people talk and think differently from each other, whether today, 200 years ago, 2000 years ago. In addition to providing an opportunity for variety in your language use, this also means that you can bring readers into the story world by having them learn alongside the characters. O'Brian does this with nautical terminology; he does not shy away from using highly precise technical language, but he introduces it to his reader by having a character in-world require an in-world explanation (and subsequently having that same character make lots of mistakes and require further correction). If done right, this can improve the richness of your world and your characters, while also allowing a window into some of the more challenging parts of your writing.

To sum up: this is a brave choice but one that may produce a really interesting work. If you want your readers to care, make sure you do your homework and do it well; give your readers a window into the language and world; and make sure that you don't neglect the characters, the plot, the story.

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I recommend a deep comparison between the Bible and how its various authors structure their writings and how modern authors have tackled that same time period. The one that springs to mind for modern authors is Francine Rivers' Mark of the Lion series. She goes into great detail about what went on during that period, and the different characters roles/reactions in it.

Perhaps between these two sources you can find your own special voice for this time period?

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In Quebec, an artist named Fred Pellerin became famous with an approach very similar to the one you are describing. I feel he doesn't alienate the public with his style because he invites them into national dreams that most can relate to.

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