As you know, I’ve been workshopping my first chapter in class. There’s been quite a lot of debate over whether it’s appropriate for my characters to say fuck or not (given that it’s set in the Regency – England in the early 1800s).
My reasoning is this:
The first, most important thing to me, is that people living “back then” would have felt just as modern as we do – they were living into a future that was moving beyond them, in a world that progressed without cease. They were human beings whose self-expression defined them (to the extent that men would weep in parliament just to make a point, people).
I cannot possibly reconstruct what natural conversation sounded like back then – as it moved unrehearsed between people.
If I try to sound “ye olde”, or use the kind of language that seems of the time, all it will convey to modern audiences is a stiff self-consciousness in the characters that they are of a bygone era.
So what I do is use language more flexibly, so that the characters feel modern and expressed to a modern audience. This feeling is more important to me – and seems to express more truly the actual nature of the characters – than trying to be strictly correct when I will never be able to be word-perfect anyway.
Here’s where I need to mention that writers I admire manage to do both, i.e. use historically-accurate/appropriate vernacular and also create a right-now sense of character.
One is the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, of course, that master of historical fiction. The device she uses most often to make her characters of their time, is to have them quoting obscure literary works. This evokes the world vividly, and the character as a thinking being interacting with the world. It also makes a character look highly intelligent, if they can use snippets out of context to convey their own meaning, with subtext woven out of a whole literary tradition.
Unfortunately, this method takes more research and knowledge than I will ever have patience for in my lifetime.
The other writer who I think does admirably is Catherine Jinks. Her Pagan series, set in the Middle East and Europe at the turn of the 12th century, is amazing for so many reasons. However, I will restrain myself and just talk about this particular aspect.
She uses a modern, expressive, punchy structure, but though her character’s voice sounds vibrant and loose, the word-choices are all period-appropriate. Pagan’s favourite curse is “Christ in a cream cheese sauce”. (Er, so I guess I don’t mean period-appropriate in that it was necessarily actually used, but that all the references/words/images are of their time.)
Both these methods are to be studied and aspired to.
Still, there’s one more angle to consider. The word fuck can be seen in writing from as early as the 16th century, but was considered unfit for print for hundreds of years. It has a history of being an expressive and naughty word.
So often when people say “that doesn’t seem historically accurate”, what they mean is, “that’s not how they speak in BBC costume dramas”.