How to Keep Language Authentic in Historical Fiction

Cover detail from A Darker Sea by James L. Haley

Editor's Note:

James L. Haley is the award-winning author of the Bliven Putnam Naval Adventure series, including A Darker Sea and The Shores of Tripoli, as well as numerous books on Native American, Texas, and Western history, and historical and contemporary fiction. Here, he shares the importance of keeping language authentic to the time period in a work of historical fiction.

Depicting characters from the past authentically, and portraying their use of language, are two of the elements that make writing historical fiction so very much more difficult than writing straight history.

Time periods remote from our own often present us with beliefs and customs so different that our belief is strained. One correspondent wrote me of the first Putnam story, The Shores of Tripoli, that boys as young as fourteen would not have been allowed to go to sea. In truth, most midshipmen were only twelve, but occasionally older, and I wrote Bliven and Sam as fourteen specifically to assuage modern incredulity. Another wrote me that he was going to fact-check my assertion that New England Congregationalists did not celebrate Christmas. I never heard from him again, so I assume he discovered that they considered the custom idolatrous and “popish.”

But as writers, no matter how much we think we know an era, anachronism can creep in as we let a story sweep us along, and in my own work, the flow of letting the characters run with a scene is repeatedly interrupted with a red-flag “Wait a minute!” Now, perhaps writing fiction is easier for other authors, but the only way for me to do it is to burrow down to such a depth of concentration that I could bend a fork if I stared at it, so for me, being shocked back to the present by an “anachronism alert” is traumatic.

A typical example in writing A Darker Sea, the second story in the Bliven Putnam naval adventure series, was a scene in which I casually composed the main character writing with a pencil.  Wait a minute: Did they even have pencils in 1812? Shaking myself out of the era, I did the research, and discovered that the first lead pencils in American were in fact manufactured in Massachusetts, in 1812 – what blind luck – so he not only got to use a pencil, I got to work in a new little element of historical stagecraft, in which his wife slips a packet of pencils into his captain’s box (itself an item of historical import), with a note inquiring whether human progress is not wonderful.

One type of resource that I find of particular value in this labor, are books not about the time, but of the time. Two of my characters in A Darker Sea, who were actual historical persons, are Dr. Edward Cutbush, who was the ship’s surgeon on the USS Constitution, and Dr. Timothy Dwight, who was the president of Yale College. (Note please: not Yale University yet!) Both men left fascinating memoirs that I am sure they never imagined would be used two centuries later as magnifying glasses into their age.

During the promotional tour for the first Putnam novel, The Shores of Tripoli, I was on the train crossing the whole breadth of Connecticut to do an event at a brew pub in Pawcatuck on the Rhode Island border. I found myself fascinated by the deep, thick forests that blanket mile after mile of this beautiful state. Reading Dr. Dwight’s account of economic conditions, however, I learned that Connecticut today is much more forested than it was in the early 1800s. Back then, so many trees were felled for clearing farmland that firewood was fiercely expensive, and keeping warm in winter was a major household worry. I never would have imagined.

Also, the use of language specific to that time and place must be done with care. Language must reinforce the feeling of the period, but never for the author to just show off, and whenever possible in a context that makes its meaning clear without the reader having to stop and look it up. Today, the term for a resident of Algeria is, an Algerian. Two centuries ago, the whole territory was Algiers, and a resident was an Algerine. Today, one purchases goods from a merchant; two centuries ago, one purchased goods of a merchant.

Research makes all the difference in how deeply readers can nest themselves in a story. Ironically, though, if the novelist does his job that labor must be invisible. Readers should not know that he spent hours researching the difference between pumpkin pie today versus two centuries ago. The writer’s reward is the satisfaction that readers take in feeling that they have been to another time and another place.