I blogged last weekend about an issue that arose during a historical fiction section at the recent AWP conference in Denver. In that entry, I took novelist Ron Hansen to task for his rule that a writer of historical fiction should never "knowingly part from fact." Hansen said many things during that session that I do agree with, one of which is that a writer of historical fiction should not use slang or terminology that postdates the era he or she is writing about. That seems a straightforward rule, one that I think most people would find reasonable and even useful. Part of the joy of writing historical fiction, after all, is finding out about previous decades and centuries, including the kinds of phrases used back then. When one is writing a novel set in North America or another English-speaking part of the world, Hansen's rule is easy enough to process and to follow. If Americans didn't say "by the skin of our teeth" in 1791, then you probably don't want to have the characters in your 1790s Boston novel use that phrase.
Things become more complicated, however, when your novel is set in a non-English speaking country or, as in the case of my Van Gogh novel, countries. If you are writing in English for an English speaking audience, then part of the long process of creating your novel is finding the right tone in English for conversations that would have actually occurred in French or German or Dutch or Swahili or whatever. (Assuming, of course, that your made up conversation ever actually happened at all.) So when a word came into parlance in English is less of a pressing matter than whether or not that word effectively renders the flavor of the character's thought. To be specific: At various points in my novel, different characters have reason to express disgust or anger or severe frustration. In a contemporary novel (in English), a character might simply say "F*** it." But can I have the characters in my nineteenth century novel--set in a non-English speaking countries--say this? My answer, so far, has been yes. In fact, the F word might be one of the easier linguisitic issues to put to rest. First, when I use that phrase, or a version of it, (and I don't use it very often) I do it because I think the word fits the emotional tone of the thoughts or conversation depicted. Would Van Gogh have actually used the word "f***"? Probably not. (Although he was fluent in English.) Would Gauguin? Not at all. But that's because they were not native English speakers. In fact, none of what I have them say in the novel they could ever have said--not the precise way I write it--because my characters weren't speaking in English back in Nuenen or Antwerp or Paris or Arles in the 1880s. I realize this may sound like an obvious point, but I make it to emphasize that a writer who is, essentially, trying to translate nineteenth century continental speech into English that a contemporary audience can read and emotionally appreciate, automatically earns a little leeway in terms of the application of Hansen's rule. Besides which, those who have looked into the etymology of the F word--and, by the way, I understand there is a fascinating documentary about this very subject, available through Netflix, titled The F-Bomb: A Documentary--have discovered that in English the word has been used for hundreds of years, well before the dawn of the 1880s. Not only that, but it seems likely this English language slang word is NOT derived from some silly acronym, but from simillar sounding words in Dutch (Van Gogh's native language!), German, Swedish, and Norwegian that mean "to strike" and/or "to copulate." (In fact, the Swedish word for "penis" is fock.) So given that the word existed in English at the same time as the real Van Gogh and the real Gauguin lived in continental Europe I feel all the more justified in using the word for my English-speaking audience--if I feel it accurately expresses the tenor of the characters' thoughts.
Language in a historical fiction is an extremely tricky issue, we can all agree, no matter what we think of Hansen's rule. Some would say, "Isn't the point of any novel to reach and touch the contemporary reading audience?" And "Can any of us really know how people talked and thought day-to-day in a world from 300 or 500 or 1000 years ago?" The answers are Yes and No. Given that, can we just go ahead and use contemporary English, no matter what the era is we're depicting? My answer: Not so fast. The simple fact is that in order to be affecting to the reader the language has to be credible, and in order to be credible it has to feel as if it could belong to the era depicted, even if it finally doesn't. And that's where applying Hansen's rule can be very useful for establishing and maintaining just that credibility.