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How much historical vocabulary is too much?

No, I’m not the person who’s going to discuss this very interesting question with you – it’s my good friend, Alison Morton.

Alison Morton, author of INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO


I’ve timed Alison’s interview, if that’s the right word, to coincide with her launch of SUCCESSIO, the third novel in her award-winning Roma Nova series which features sassy detective Carina Mitela. As writer and broadcaster Sue Cook says, it’s a “A real edge-of-the-seat read, genuinely hard to put down.”

I know Alison researches her writing thoroughly, so I asked her for her thoughts on historical detail in books.

Over to you, Alison!

“Not finishing a book is a serious and rather sad decision for a reader. I rarely give up, but I was struggling through a recommended book and twice woke up with it on my face. I dreaded picking it up again. The story was fascinating, but the dialogue and vocabulary so irritating I was losing the plot. Literally.

The research was impeccable, the thriller story full of twists and the characters well-drawn and rounded. The chief enemy was very sympathetic, so the writer had been clever, pulling me in to want him to be the victor rather than his opposite number.

But…

The dialogue was full of words such as ‘Odds bodkins’, ‘Prithee’ and ‘varlet’, and I mean full. Obscure names of everyday objects had been inserted wherever possible and they became alienating.

I’ve nothing against well-researched period vocabulary; in fact, it’s essential to set the scene in historical fiction of all types and sometimes crucial to the plot. I use Latin expressions and Roman character names in my alternative history world of Roma Nova. Words such as palla, atrium, solidus, centurion, etc. are what give my books their ambiance. But my characters speak in standard English so the reader can follow what’s happening. If a book is set in the Renaissance then a more formal tone may be better, if in the Wild West, then a more casual tone and with farming and animal-related words and expressions.

Writers need to link the period flavour to the reader’s experience and knowledge without ‘writing down’ to them. Scattering, hinting and drip-feeding are far more effective writing techniques and give readers context, colour and perhaps some new information without separating them from the story. Less is more, or multum in parvo as the Romans say.”

The Arch of Constantine, near the Colosseum in Rome, emblematic of all things Roman

Medieval knights

Roman signifier

Many thanks, Alison. That was most interesting, and food for thought for all those who write historical novels. It recalls a discussion about historical vocabulary that I had on my blog some time ago. You can read it by clicking here.

Before you go, tell us about the book that’s published today.

SUCCESSIO continues the story of Carina, whom we met in the first two books in the series, INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS. What’s a little different is that the next generation steps up to take an important part in the action.

Roma Nova – the last remnant of the Roman Empire that has survived into the 21st century – is at peace. Carina Mitela, the heir of a leading family, but choosing the life of an officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces, is not so sure.

She senses danger crawling towards her when she encounters a strangely self-possessed member of the unit hosting their exchange exercise in Britain. When a blackmailing letter arrives from a woman claiming to be her husband Conrad’s lost daughter and Conrad tries to shut Carina out, she knows the threat is real.

Trying to resolve a young man’s indiscretion twenty-five years before turns into a nightmare that not only threatens to destroy all the Mitelae but also attacks the core of the imperial family itself. With her enemy holding a gun to the head of the heir to the imperial throne, Carina has to make the hardest decision of her life…

And here’s a trailer with some exciting music http://youtu.be/B6Tr0VvKbJI

Alison’s bio

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with strong heroines. She holds a bachelor’s degree in French, German and Economics, a masters’ in history and lives in France with her husband.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, she has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

Both INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series, which was also shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award, and PERFIDITAS, the second in series, have been honoured with the B.R.A.G. Medallion®, an award for independent fiction that rejects 90% of its applicants.  Alison’s third book SUCCESSIO is being launched now!

SUCCESSIO is available through your local bookshop (paperback) and online as ebook and paperback at multiple retailers.

 You can read more about Alison, Romans, alternate history and writing here on her blog at www.alison-morton.com

or on her Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AlisonMortonAuthor   Twitter: @alison_morton

Over and out!

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  • Good point, Alison. The same can probably said for any period or regional dialogue, don’t you think? It’s very easy to put in too many thees and nays when you only want a scattering to flavour. Confession – I may have made one of my characters stutter too much so I’m currently giving him a few more sentences of clear speech. The trouble is that the writer probably only concentrates on a few pages at a time whereas a reader (hopefully) devours the book in a day or two.

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your comment, Linda. You’re absolutely right about regional dialogue – too much can make a novel far too difficult for a reader; by the time one’s struggled to understand the regional dialogue, one’s forgotten the story line! I shouldn’t worry too much about stuttering, though – it didn’t hurt The King’s Speech!

  • Linda – it’s a fine line and one that writers need to check on every re-draft and/or edit. You don’t want a colourless, featureless story, but one which is saturated is (to me!) incredibly irritating. Some of my alternative history colleagues who write great stories sometimes let themselves be seduced by ‘detail-itis’ in their eagerness to explain their fascinating world/timeline.

    And so do some standard historical writers…

    I don’t want you to get a swollen head, Liz, but you get the balance dead right!

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