On Writing Forsoothly

“Writing forsoothly” is the term we like to use around the house for all the different varieties of bad pseudo-archaic diction that infest modern fantasy — historical and created-world fantasy in particular.  J. R. R. Tolkien is undoubtedly to blame for a lot of it, because his characters do like their elevated language; what unobservant readers miss is the way that Tolkien modulates his characters’ dialogue, moving effortlessly from plain vernacular to almost-archaic high formal speech and back again, depending upon the situation and the company.  Strider the Ranger has a much commoner way of talking than Aragorn the Heir to the Throne of Gondor, but at the same time they’re both recognizably the same guy.

It’s probably unwise to play with writing in extreme forsoothly unless you can at least approach Tolkien’s level of skill and language-awareness.  It’s a lot harder to do than it looks, and the failure mode is dire.  But if you’re determined to give it a try — and nobody ever makes any progress in this game unless they regularly try things that they aren’t certain will work — there are a few things it will help to do first.

One:  Ask yourself, “Is this really the direction my writing talent lies in?” and answer it honestly.  If your interior Magic 8-Ball refuses to yield up anything more specific than “reply hazy; ask again later,” find a kind but honest friend and ask them.  Kind, because you don’t want your self-image pulled down and stomped upon with hobnailed boots; and honest, because you’re not asking them for sympathy, you’re asking them for the truth.

Two:  Prepare yourself.  Read genuine period or formal writing until it dribbles out of your ears.  If you start talking in Shakespearean or Regency English at the breakfast table, you’re probably ready.  And a good thing, too, because at that point your friends and family are either bored stiff with your project, or convinced that you’re going nuts.

Three: Stop researching and write.  Don’t worry about getting all the nuances down perfectly; you can always polish the heck out of the language in your second — or third or fourth or fifth — draft.

Four:  Go find that kind but honest friend again.  This time, ask them if the archaic or formal language in fact worked; and ask them, also, whether they think you got it right but took it too far.  As with so many other things in writing, a light hand is best.

(For an interesting example of archaic diction done well in an unexpected venue, check out the historical romance For My Lady’s Heart, by Laura Kinsale, now available again in e-book format after a long while out of print.)

9 thoughts on “On Writing Forsoothly

  1. Patrick O’Brian will infect a person even faster than Austen. Yes, I know he’s not a primary source, but good lord.

    The fact that it’s nearly irresistible to read his funny bits out to anyone within hearing distance also gets the rhythms of the speech into one’s brain.

    The trick then becomes not using some of Stephen’s characteristic expressions for speakers who aren’t Irish, for all love.

    I once gave a beta note back to a friend of mine who was also writing an AoS piece with “Stephen, you infernal lubber, can you not remember that those are called stern-lights?”

    Definitely infected.

    1. I think O’Brian managed the same feat that Georgette Heyer did — creating a narrative voice that may or may not have been in all respects period-accurate, but which was so strong that it influenced a host of subsequent writers.

      (Prior to O’Brian, most age-of-fighting-sail adventures were written in what could best be described as sturdy, workmanlike prose.)

  2. What unobservant readers miss is the way that Tolkien modulates his characters’ dialogue, moving effortlessly from plain vernacular to almost-archaic high formal speech and back again, depending upon the situation and the company.

    Even young children code-switch (changing their dialect or language to suit their audience and context). We do it without even thinking about it.

    When a person does not code-switch to suit context, that’s usually a conscious decision on their part. There are all kinds of reasons a character might make that choice, but if my character isn’t code-switching and I haven’t established a reason, there’s a serious risk of them coming off like a caricature. Especially if none of the other characters comment on it.

    Done right: Simon on Firefly intentionally refuses to code-switch out of his prestige core-world dialect, even though he’s now living with scoundrels on the rim. He has a clearly-defined reason for it. He also takes consequences for it, in terms of people assuming he’s using his dialect to establish dominance. Inara, in contrast, has the same prestige dialect, and regularly code-switches away from it.

    Done wrong: practically every crime drama ever in which a young urban black character talks to police (and the jury) the same way they’d talk to their neighborhood friends (unless they’re doing it on purpose for reasons).

    1. Even young children code-switch (changing their dialect or language to suit their audience and context). We do it without even thinking about it.

      What makes it hard for writers is that we have to do it while we’re thinking about it, which is a great way to get one’s mind tied up in knots. Some writers seem to have a natural gift for dialogue — their characters all sound like real people, and don’t all sound like each other; they can modulate between registers smoothly and appropriately; they can convey the idea of a dialect without resorting to annoying stereotypes. Other writers have to work hard at it, and their reward is to have all their hard work look so natural to the outside observer that everybody thinks their job was easy.

      1. Ha, yes. As with many things in writing, it’s not enough to do it in real life; you also have to be observant enough to note that it’s done in real life and translate it to fiction in a way that captures the concept without getting bogged down in it.

  3. Thank you for the mention of For My Lady’s Heart in this context. I loved writing in Middle English (or my watered down version of it.) It created its own music. But easy to overdo, and I backed it down quite a bit in the final version. I also added a “modernized” version to the ebook, so readers have a choice between the ME and non-ME words.

    Interestingly, this week Nicholas Boulton is recording it as an audiobook. I’ve heard some samples, and I must say, a real Englishman (and trained Shakespearean actor and voice artist) make Middle English sound perfectly normal!

  4. I loved For My Lady’s Heart, and was impressed by the sheer nerve it must have taken to do the Middle English. My paperback copy vanished into the dimension of lost socks and misplaced gloves ages ago, so I was delighted to see the e-book become available.

    I’m going to have to keep an eye — an ear, rather — out for the audiobook, too. It sounds absolutely yummy.

  5. A good read-aloud resource for internalizing elegant English usage is the 1611 King James Bible.

    One of the biggest forsoothly gaffes in print is at the very end of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” when Lewis suddenly has the grown-up Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy spouting stereotypically stilted speech to one another. Throughout the book before that point nobody in Narnia spoke that way.

    1. The KJV and the Book of Common Prayer, oh yes.

      For historical characters, it’s also nice to keep in mind that they’d have heard those particular words all the time, and phrases might show up in their internal monologues sometimes. I had fun with that.

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