Monday, April 19, 2010

Time Warping Prose

Disclaimer: I’m unpublished. I’ve never written historical fiction. I am likely going to anger several fans of classic literature with the following post. I’d like the mob to remember that classic literature was not classic at the time of publication—an observation, I am certain, to which Dickens and Hardy and the rest would heartily agree.

On Thursday I made a decision which would impact my productivity on everything from laundry to writing for the next several days: I picked up The Luxe by Anna Godbersen. Described as “The Age of Innocence meets Gossip Girl”, it interweaves the stories of the Holland sisters and their circle of acquaintances in 1899 New York (and was so addictive I picked up the next two books the following day).

Coincidentally, about the same time, I began an email discussion with a fellow GotYA contributor about writing historical YA fiction and what form the prose should take. Should it read like Bronte and Wharton or was it acceptable to use a somewhat more modern style (shorter sentences, fewer semi-colons, nary an “ere long” in sight)?

Personally, I think it’s fine and dandy to use an update style of prose provided you can still weave an illusion of a given time period (something Godbersen did amazingly well). When I pick up a modern novel—even when that modern novel is portraying a far off time and place—I know I’m not reading Dickens or Austen. I’m prepared for the language to be a little more accessible and for things to be a little more straightforward—heck, in some ways, I’m counting on it.

Now, as the disclaimer states, I’m unpublished and hardly a reliable source of information regarding either classics (of which the only one I’ve ever truly adored was Jane Eyre) or historical fiction (somehow I don’t think reading A Knight In Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux gets me much street cred) so I’d love for GotYA readers to weigh in. Do you write or read historical YA fiction? Got an opinion on prose? I’d love to hear it. Any great YA historical fiction titles our readers should check out?


It would be a glaring oversight of me to write a post mentioning the classics without plugging one of my favorite internet resources: Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg provides internet users with hundreds of titles which have fallen into public domain—including Jane Eyre and The Age of Innocence.


Krista Ashe said...

I've really wanted to read these books for awhile, but in truth, it's the covers that have gotten me interested. They're just gorgeous! :)

They'll have to reside in the TBR pile for the moment.

houndrat said...

Wow, that's a really interesting question! I think I've got to weigh in on the "go for the modern prose" side. Unfortunately, my life is so hectic, I don't have the attention span to really sit and struggle over unfamiliar language these days--I want a book I can pick up and get sucked right into.

And for books that do use period-specific language, I really believe a little goes a long way (just like with writing accents or anything else).

P.S. I'll see your Jude D. and raise you a Johanna Lindsey! :D

La-La-La-Laurie said...

If I picked up a book, and it was written like a classic, I would not read it.

I think Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle series is a great example of a historical (fantasy) that worked really well. A lot of people say Gemma was a bit too forward for the time period, but that had more to do with the character, and less to do with the prose, which I think was pitch perfect. Of course, Libba Bray's a genuius so it's not something that's easy to master.

TamiJean said...

I prefer a middle ground somewhere more towards the modern language.

Any prose (regardless of how time-accurate or beautiful it may be) which requires me to slow down and carefully examine each word, phrase, or sentence to make sure I understood its meaning (this includes thickly accented character speech) is likely to lose me completely. When reading becomes an effort, I have to weigh my expectations about what I'm going to get out of the book against the work I'll need to do to understand it. As I read for pleasure, I don't look forward to work in my reading.

That being said, I don't like it when period writing has modern ideas and speech patterns baldly slapped into an era of ballgowns and horse-drawn carriages, either.

"I want a strong, independant woman by my side," said Lord Ashford, looking totally cute.

"Like, for sure!" Lady Evangeline said, sipping tea and flouncing in her petticoats.

...does not work for me. =]

Pam Harris said...

I don't really read historical YA, but have considered starting after having a discussion this past weekend with my cousin. I was encouraging her to do so since it would be combining two of her loves (she's a history teacher and she's going back to school for creative writing). I've started researching other historical YAs for her, and if my reading schedul allows, I'll try to sneal one or two in this summer.

J.S. Wood said...

I just read a fascinating book, "A Certain Slant of Light" by Laura Whitcomb. Set in modern day with modern language, were two characters who lived many decades earlier. When they conversed with each other there were so many formal, touching phrases such as, "Miss Helen, I don't want to compromise you." and "You may tire of me." I thought this blended the old and the new so well. While not historical, it picked up the phrasing from bygone days.

As far as YA Historicals, it is not something I would readily pick-up, simply because the language can be hard to follow and I prefer a well-written, modern tale. I agree whole-heartedly with Deb.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I think today's teen readers prefer today's language. If it's too classic, it's a turn-off to them. :-)

SM Schmidt said...

I confess I devour historical fiction (and since I only read YA it's always historical YA fiction). That said, I'm all for a little updating with dialog so long as it doesn't turn into a gaping adventure in anachronisms.

Lydia Kang said...

I'm writing historical YA (frontier America in 1834) but the language easily could be modern. I make sure I don't put anything that wouldn't be said (like "okay", that had to go) and there are times (like cussing) when it's clearly set in a certain time period.
I recently read "Ivy" by Julia Hearn and her language was very period. I liked it, but I heard that it really turned some readers off because it got confusing.

Josin L. McQuein said...

I think it needs to be a bit like writing in an accent - a pinch to season, but more than that will spoil it.

If you write in overtly "historic" prose, you run the risk of your readers retreating behind the walls put up to protect one's brain from assigned "classics" in English Lit. (Of course, that doesn't mean you should have an Edwardian teen yell out "Dude!" when upset.)

The best advice I ever heard for writing in accent or tone was for live action. You want someone to say you've done a good job on the accent when you first open your mouth, but if they're still hearing the accent twenty minutes later, you did it wrong.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've read any YA Historical fiction since high school, ie Johnny Tremain and Kidnapped. I did read Libba Bray's first Gemma Doyle book.
Maybe it's just me, but I'm not as interested in the 1890s, though, I love the covers of the Luxe books.
i would love to write a YA Historical, but I just don't have the time or an idea right now. I think writing a YA Historical would take lots of time becasue of research, and more so to find information about teens during a particular time period.
I've heard this said about writing adult historicals, the language shouldn't be too showy, flowery. So I would say the same for a YA Historical. You could have slang, and improper English usuage, and cussing - but those things would denote a lower class character. And that's fine, just don't use modern slang like whatever, or fine, or for sure.

Raven said...

I used to write historical fiction, and I'd say that I'd rather have a mixture of both. I want the story to feel like it belongs in that time period, but I wouldn't mind if it was a little bit modern.

Not a lot of teens cringe when they read Classics, or books that aren't modern. I am fifteen and I love books like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice.

One of my favorite YA historical novels is I am Rembrandt's Daughter by Lynn Cullen. I would recommend it to anyone who wants an easy good read.

Anonymous said...

I try not to begin reading historical fiction with any expectations, as far as prose goes (rhyme not intended). Naturally, I AM expecting decent writing, but I can easily read historical fiction with either "historical prose" or a modern touch.

On the other hand, I'm always thrilled to find an author who captures the art of "historical prose". That's a talent in and of itself. Heck, it's nearly a different language, don't you think?


Kathleen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen said...

Cate & Krista: There was a great article in Publisher's Weekly which talked about the covers:

houndrat: That's one of the things I'm enjoying about The Luxe books. I'm getting swept up in the sense of another time without the effort. I confess it's also the reason I love Austen adaptations but almost never read Austen.

Laurie: I love Libba Bray. I think she's an absolute genius for doing the Gemma Doyle series first and then following it up with Going Bovine.

TamiJean: I totally agree. One obviously anachronistic word can completely break the spell.

Pam: It's not YA but historical I read and really got sucked into was "The Other Bolyen Girl".

Jen: I'm going to put that book on my TBR pile.

Shannon: I think it varies. When I was a teen I actually went through a classics phase. I spent most of eleventh grade physics reading "War and Peace" (my mark reflected this).

SM: Any titles I should be on the lookout for?

Lydia: A frontier YA title? Very cool! I was working on a post apocalyptic story on and off and actually spent a fair bit of time at a local museum for their exhibits on life in the 1800's for inspiration and to get a sense of how things might work.

Josin: "I think it needs to be a bit like writing in an accent - a pinch to season, but more than that will spoil it." what a great way to put it!

Raven: Someone on Absolute Write started a poll on best YA books and I've got to admit that before I thought John Green (who I adore) or Charles De Lint (who more people need to read) my first thought was Emily Bronte.

Madeleine: I totally agree. It's certainly not something I would attempt lightly.

Laura McMeeking said...

I read historical fiction...mostly not historical YA, but I have read The Luxe series and LOVED it. I felt like the modern prose suited the story better, and really, I don't trust modern authors to be able to pull off the authentic language of the past. Blending does a lot for modern historical fiction in terms of picking and choosing the words you put together and your overall writing style, really. I guess I don't expect Jane Austen when I pick up The Luxe. And, I loved that about the series. It was like an historical gossip girl. And, I love the narrator's voice. It felt very much like the one on Desperate Housewives. :D

Bee said...

I don't think I can ever write historical fiction aeven though I like reading the. I lurrve The Luxe books. And I don't have a problem if modern prose is used, but I think it'll be more prone to being critised regarding credibility.

Annie McElfresh said...

Historical ficton is sometimes a nice change of pace in the YA world. I know a lot of people like sticking to the old ways and wording, but as a person that reads young adult, sometimes that puts me to sleep. I think a modern twist would be great.

HH said...

I love Jane Austen, but I think if I were to pick up a piece of historical fiction that pubbed recently and it was written in 18th century prose, I'd be a bit thrown off. Like - who does this author think they are anyhow?

I LOVED the Luxe series.