I am currently writing a book based in Edwardian London. The characters come from various social backgrounds and the need for accuracy is eating away at my fingers as I write.
This weekend just past, I attended the MCM Comic Con at London’s Excel Centre and was lucky enough to have a brief chat with Widdershins creator Kate Ashwin. If you aren’t familair with her work, she writes a web comic set in a magical vision of Victorian England ( See more here: http://www.widdershinscomic.com). I asked her how she ensures authenticity with her dialogue to which she replied that she considered most available sources to be rather stilted in style as they tend to be of a written English style rather than a natural, spoken tone, and so she tends to write in a more contemporary style.
This got me wondering, to what extent can this be worried over, if at all? Is it even possible to write with any degree of accuracy at all without being a person of the era in questions? If one was to write a story based in the 16th century, should it be Shakespearean and “verily, forsooth!” to the core (therefore risking it being rendered inpenetrable to the average modern reader) or should it be modernised for a wider audience? How about the use of slang?
The TV series Deadwood, for example, has abandoned the parlance of the times and gone straight for the jugular with words more familiar to the modern scumbag, words that would have been used only sparingly in the 1870s.
I, personally, have decided to lean towards accuracy as much as possible. In my latest book (work in progress) I have found various sources to be of much use. Court records, personal letters, autbiographies, all of these can give a range of tones to allow access to at least an idea of vocabulary in use, sentence structure, social etiquette, and more.
I know that there will always be somebody out there with far greater knowledge of the era than myself, and they might choose to criticise certain elements of the writings, but the main goal should be to create a world, an atmosphere, a feeling. I’ve felt that attempting to acheive that might be better than ignoring the possibility of it’s use whatsoever. On the other hand, if your descriptive powers are as good as in many creations out there, then it needn’t be a stressing consideration at all.
I do envy those writers as I do feel I’ve created a rod for my back, and only extended the writing time by unthinkable percentages.