Julia Anne Long, good stuff, sad stuff

Here’s the good news: I just read the four novels Julie Anne Long has out. Historical romance, mostly regency. And she’s good. She can write a sentence, she can tell a story. The first two novels are light(er) reads. With her third one — Beauty and the Spy — she really finds her footing.

There’s an interesting plot here, one that actually had me wondering how things would resolve themselves — and that is unusual. This is not bragging. This is somebody who reads and writes for a living just stating a fact: it’s not unusual for me to get to page three in a book and know pretty much everything that’s going to happen, and how. Within the romance genre, there are some givens. You know who will end up together, but you don’t know how they’ll get there or what the roadblocks will be.

JAL manages to tweak some expectations. That’s an excellent thing. I think that she has a good chance of evolving into a major name in historical romance if she continues along this trajectory.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to report this flaw.

Has nobody ever talked to this woman about how she portrays dialect? Because there’s only one word: sloppy. Or maybe two words: sloppy and uninformed. There seems to be a formula:

1. Is this character of a lower or working social class? If your answer is yes, pepper his or her direct dialog liberally with any and all of the following:

  • dropped h
  • replace every instance of ‘you’ with ‘ye’
  • don’t stint on the tortured spellings
  • lots of apostrophes (and don’t forget the exclamation points!!!)
  • sprinkle with an occasional dinna or couldna

2. Is the character Irish or Scots? If so, double up on all the features mentioned. No need to distinguish between them.

For example:

For the love of dog: what the hell? This poor Biggs guy is linguistically schizophrenic. He is possessed by speakers from all over the British Isles. His symptoms:

  • He’s dropping his h-es as though he just escaped from a My Fair Lady Cockney casting call.
  • ‘avena seen you since’ — What is this compulsion to hang Scots verb morphology like a caboose on the back of working class London phonology?
  • Poor Biggs, he’s possessed by a torment of second person pronouns, Yorkshire and Middle English and … what, exactly? Some terrible mixture. Tha and ye and your… put the man out of his misery. Please.

I will admit this was a particularly bad bit of dialog, but all JAL’s novels have this sad problem. Looking at this example, I’m wondering how I managed to get through at all. And so here’s the compliment: the stories were compelling enough to keep me going. Though I winced. Winced, I tell you, every time I saw an apostrophe coming.

You might think this is nitpicking. Unimportant to the story. But when you’ve got a duke’s eldest son posing as an Irish groom, it would really help this rather standard plot device if the duke could actually sound Irish. Because it’s likely that the upper class English household that employs him would notice right away if he claimed to be Irish but instead sounded…. confused. The way to do that is not with ye, and absolutely not with dinna, but with lexical choice and syntax. If you really want to pursue writing dialog so it evokes English as it is spoken in Ireland, there are places to go for that information. There’s a great list of features on Wikipedia, which includes lots of examples of regional phonology (you’ll note — the Irish do not drop initial h), as well as word choice and syntax. for example, you might hear:

“Why did you hit him?” “He was after insulting me.”

The Wikipedia article has a nice, concise explanation of the origin of that usage.

Ms. Long will likely never see this post, but if she does I hope she will take this in the spirit it is meant. Such promising work deserves more attention to detail.

So I’ll put down here my rule of thumb, which I have talked about before (but not recently): don’t mess with spelling. Do. Not. Mess with Spelling. Do some basic research about differences between various dialects. Don’t confuse the Irish with the Scots — it will make them cranky.

Booklist likes Queen of Swords

Yiiiippppppeeeeee! A really good review from Booklist:

Donati, Sara. Queen of Swords. Oct. 2006. 564p. Bantam, $27 (0-533-80149-X).

In the fifth volume of her popular Wilderness series after Fire Along the Sky (2004), Donati sweeps readers into two strong women’s personal journeys of rescue and redemption. It is 1814 in the French Antilles, where Scots noblewoman Jennet Scott Huntar is being held captive. But when her future husband, Luke, and his half-sister, Hannah, finally locate and free her, their troubles have just begun. To ensure the safety of her son, born during her imprisonment, Jennet had made a devil’s bargain with a dissolute, untrustworthy man. As the trio travels from Pensacola to New Orleans in their attempts to learn the child’s whereabouts, Jennet struggles to heal herself and her marriage, while Hannah, half-Mohawk, uses her medical training to help the city’s Indian populace and faces deadly illness herself. It’s both a smoothly written, engrossing adventure about an early American family and a vivid depiction of the little-explored War of 1812, yet it’s more than that. Donati also delves into much deeper realities, such as race and prejudice in one of America’s famously multicultural cities, the complex patterns of revenge, the price of loyalty during wartime, and the transformative power of love. Avid historical fiction and romance readers will devour it. —Sarah Johnson

edited to add this link to Sarah Johnson’s weblog

deadwood & the reconstruction of historical vernacular

If you read my review of Deadwood (HBO) you’ll know that I like it a lot, but I was critical of the anachronistic use of language. Robert Armstrong objected to the criticism and commented:

… However, much historical research was done to produce Deadwood and the dialog is authentic.Check out Noel Holston’s article at

So I did go have a look at the article. Newsday is a subscription service, but here’s an excerpt with the salient points.

The article is by Noel Holston, dated March 21, 2004

Welcome to the vile, vile West.

“Deadwood” is the most profane western in the history of the genre. … Just about everybody…uses polysyllabic epithets of the sort we associate with Tony Soprano and gangsta rappers. It’s language so unprecedentedly blistering, even some tough, jaded TV critics have been moved to ask, “What the, ah, heck, is this?”… According to Milch, it’s a much closer approximation of the language of the real West, that’s what. “That’s the way they spoke,” he said. “I researched the show a good, long time – over a year – and went through a tremendous amount of primary material. And the one thing upon which everyone agrees was that the profanity and obscenity was astounding. It was overwhelming. People who would visit would report that they simply couldn’t believe the way people spoke out there.”… Note that Milch said “primary” material. He’s talking about accounts of Deadwood in letters and diaries from the time in which his show is set and oral histories collected by the Library of Congress’ Living Memory project. … Rather than take Milch’s explanation at face value, I did a bit of primary research myself…. Don Reeves, the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, recently oversaw the installation of an exhibit about the cinematic West. … He said the expression “cusses like a sailor” would apply equally to cowboys, but he was quick to add that, from his study, the salty language of the 1870s wouldn’t necessarily be the same as today’s profanity. [emphasis added]… Milch said that however startling the language in “Deadwood” may be, shock is not his point. “The lawlessness of the language is, first of all, something that I hope people will get used to,” he said. “But it [also] establishes an atmosphere, verbally, in which anything is possible. And at that point, the viewer, one hopes, is brought to some sort of emotional equivalency with the environment and then begins to identify how certain characters rise above it.”

I also went to look at the data at the American Experience website at the Library of Congress. There were a number of oral histories but no letters that I could find. The only mention of swearing I ran into at all was a recollection of Wild Bill Hickok that mentioned that he was very quiet, and rarely swore. Of course the letters may well be there, and I just didn’t find them — I’m assuming that they are. But here’s the problem. In 1875 “I can’t believe the way they talk!” means something different than it does in 2004. As the historian pointed out (bold faced in the excerpt above), salty language is a relative term.

The writers for the series went looking for hints on how people talked, and my guess is that they have over-interpreted what they found, or maybe they just decided that they wanted the shock value of the strongest language possible for the present day. In either case, I stand by my original criticism.

This is an issue of some importance to writers of historical fiction, and of particular interest to me because of my academic background. The short answer to the question of how to handle language of the past is (as I see it) this: you can’t get it completely right, but it is possible to avoid the worst kinds of generalizations and errors. ((An example of how I handled this issue in the Wilderness books: Robbie is a Scot from the Lowlands, thus is first language is Scots, and English is his second language. Scots and English are related, but distinct languages, somewhat like the relationship between Dutch and German — there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but Scots and English are still distinct and associated with different nation-states. Scots is different from English primarily in that many sound changes which originated in the south of England and moved northwards petered out — or, to put it more accurately — were resisted by those in the north. Now, all of this has nothing to do with Gaelic, which is another language from a completely different language family. Gaelic and other forms of the Celtic languages were spoken all through the island before the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions, which gave rise to English. The Celtic peoples were driven back, into Cornwall and Wales and up into Scotland. In the eighteenth century, Gaelic was the first language of the Scottish Highlands. Many people there spoke nothing else. If they did speak something besides Gaelic, it might have been Scots, but not necessarily. It might have been English. Novelists like to portray Highlanders as speakers of Scots, but that’s unlikely in most cases. This is similar to the way we like to think of King Arthur as speaking English, when that language did not even exist during his lifetime. So in Robbie’s case, he grew up in the Lowlands, speaking Scots. He learned English subsequently when he went to the Colonies, but he always spoke it reluctantly, and with a strong Scots flavoring.

As you might guess from this rather detailed answer, I have a PhD in linguistics and I take a lot of interest in the language issues. So when Robbie was developing as a character, I went to various people who could be counted as experts on Scots. Lesley Milroy, a sociolinguist who happens to be a Lowland Scot, was a great deal of help. I have about fifteen volumes on Scots (history, structure, vocabulary) and I have also found extremely helpful sights on the web. One of the best is put together by Andy Eagle (Sneck here for tae gang til a cuttie Scots furthsettin o his wabsteid!).))

The other question, and it is a valid one, is how to avoid anachronism without alienating modern day readers. That’s a topic for another time, I think.

more dialect in dialog

It’s a delicate business, but it can be done well. Examples from published fiction that you might find of interest below.
I’ve also included a few examples from my own work — including a passage where I commit the very sin I’ve been talking about here.

A lot of the second novel in the Wilderness series takes place in lowland Scotland in 1802. The language spoken by the characters would have been Scots — not English. I’ll spare you the discourse on the difference at the moment, but while I was writing the novel I struggled with representing Scots in writing, and I did end up using spelling, to some degree. Here’s an example:

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