It is a truth universally acknowledged that one of the trickiest things, when writing a novel, is getting the voice of your narrator right. Most people (or, to be depressingly pedantic, most people who’ve read my books) would have no difficulty in identifying which of my co-narrators said, ‘my father spent his life perfecting failure’ and which would have replied, ‘that’s crap, that is’. Indeed. Ethelred’s mournful tones and Elsie’s ever-impatient Estuary English have been with me since book one. I could hear them in my head before the first word hit the page.
But what if you start writing historical crime fiction? It simply isn’t true that, in a novel set after 1550 or so, you can just write authentic period dialogue and everyone will lap it up. Even in the mid seventeenth century, where I have set my new John Grey series, you can’t just plonk down some sort of Pepysian pastiche. Pepys was of course a stylish and readable writer, but even he is not always easy to follow. Take this passage, selected more or less at random, from October 1661.
‘Early with Mr. Moore by coach to Chelsy, to my Lord Privy Seal’s, but have missed of coming time enough.’
Now, I think Pepys is saying he was late but, even on a second or third reading, I’m not too sure. And what exactly are the herring busses to which he refers a day or so before? Period detail is one thing, but you don’t want to hold up the murders with a mass of footnotes.
And how do I render the different varieties of seventeenth century speech that undoubtedly existed? I could not hope to reproduce their equivalent of Estuary English, let alone the subtle differences between (say) the middle-class Pepys and his aristocratic boss, Lord Sandwich.
Even if I could, how will my readers see these characters, speaking their pitch-perfect seventeenth century dialogue? Authentic voices from the distant past? But I want readers to see the characters as they would have seen each other – living, breathing, modern.
So, like most historical writers I elect to compromise. What I set down on the page is good colloquial twenty-first century English but with two twists. First, I try to excise every word or phrase that would mark the text down as modern. No iPhones, clearly. But also nobody exclaiming ‘as if!’ Nobody describing a powdered periwig as ‘well reem’. Then I scatter judiciously about the text a few words that will not cause too much head-scratching but will convey some period charm to the narrative – they may say se’nnight for week, for example, or may have a brave cake or a jole of ling brought them at the ordinary at which they are dining. (There, that didn’t hurt too much, did it?)
Of course, readers of historical fiction are a difficult bunch to please. A Roman soldier in the wrong colour tunic or a Napoleonic wars infantryman with the wrong rifle and the postman can scarcely drag his red-hot mailbag up the author’s drive. But who in the end can say exactly how a middle-class seventeenth century lawyer like John Grey actually spoke? We may know how he phrased wills and how he expressed himself in letters, but his everyday speech is largely unrecorded. Which is just fine for the writer of historical crime fiction, who can set it all down much as he or she pleases and sleep easy. Or, as Pepys so rightly put it: ‘after a little business done in my study and supper, to bed’.
LC Tyler’s new book, A Cruel Necessity, is out in hardback on November 6th, priced £19.99