Balance of Tone in a Historical Setting

7 Jul

Recently, I started and set aside two books in relatively quick succession. I typically attempt to slog through–there can be real gems of writing wisdom in books you might set aside, after all–but when my problem is so blatantly obvious, I just don’t see the point of torturing myself.

I won’t point fingers at these particular books or authors, but I will give a brief synopsis:

Book A: set in something like Renaissance Venice, with a distinct class system, arranged marriages, and frilly gowns, it had a great premise. The main character runs across a murdered woman and sets off attempting to find the culprit with her love interest.

Book B: set in a time when riding horses was the only mode of transportation, leeches were used to relieve fevers, highwaymen were a matter of course, pistols etc. were popular weapons of choice. Also a fairly interesting premise: highborn boy running away from home gets into some trouble, gets stopped by a wounded highway “man” who turns out to be a girl, and… that’s where I stopped reading.

Both of these books were obviously set in a historical time, and there were a lot of great details in both books that allowed me to immerse myself in the time period. Unfortunately, there was one massive fault in both: the tone of voice used by the narrator.

In Book A, dialogue and narration alike were far too modern. Without descriptions of the pretty dresses and letters from an arranged betrothed, I would have thought I was hearing conversations between a couple of high school students in 2013.

Book B had the opposite problem: it was too “historical.” With lines like “I thought not” and “I had a need for  a weapon,” the narration was stilted and distant, and, to be honest, not entirely in line with historical accounts from the intended time period. I read quite a few journals while working towards my history degree and while they weren’t anything like what I was reading in Book B. Granting realism for a moment, it was still incredibly difficult to read and opened this gulf of distance between me and the main character. I was nearly 100 pages in and felt no connection whatsoever.

When writing in a historical setting, there are two things to keep in mind: 1) your characters need to speak and act differently than your audience to give that “feel” of historical immersion and 2) your audience is not from a historical time period and still needs to be able to read your book without tripping over strangely-phrased sentences.

Largely writing historical fantasy, I struggle with the balance myself. However, there are a lot of good books to read that have struck the right sort of balance in my opinion. The first author that comes to mind is Patricia C. Wrede, who’s written a variety of books that I’ve reread on occasion just to study the way she puts words together. If you’re into YA and looking for an example of “tone done right” I highly recommend looking into either Sorcery and CeceliaA Matter of Magic, or The Thirteenth Child, all of which are fantastic examples of historical tone that is still appealing to modern readers.

Anyway… just some random thoughts on this lazy Sunday as I sit contemplating what to read next!

Do you have any recommendations for great examples of “tone done right” or even just “things done right” in writing? I’d love to hear your suggestions!


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