Writing Historical Fiction (11): Hilary Mantel

Over the past year I read books in the mythology retelling genre and almost all of them used modern words and idioms whichobviously does not make for a great reading experience. As you read works of writers like Iain Pears (Stone’s Fall, An Instance of the Fingerpost) or David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), you realize that there is tremendous effort involved in recreating that era. In this interview, Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel explains how she uses language to make the story authentic to the period.

I know language is said to be one of the great problems for historical novelists. It’s vital because it sets the tone, the register of the novel, and if you misjudge, your reader will flinch. But I can’t pretend I’ve ever agonised over it; the idiom seems to arrive along with the characters and the first line. I’m aware, of course, that much unconscious preparation goes on, below the line, before the first words register on the screen or the page. I think most of us working today are keen to avoid pastiche, and we privilege clarity. But if your language is totally modern, it implants the false suggestion that your characters have modern thoughts. So what you want is a flavour, a twist, like a hint of perfume or spice, which animates your plain prose and gives it a slight otherness. If you understand your characters’ world view, all the images and metaphors they might use in speech, or in the thoughts they share with the reader, will be of a piece, and all their expressions will be congruent. So I think you can’t separate the issue of language from the general effort to find out as much as you can about how their world was different from ours.[Hilary Mantel ‘like some inky clerk with a quill, scratching to keep up’]