Monday, October 13, 2008

Guest post from Nan Hawthorne, author of AN INVOLUNTARY KING

I'm delighted to present this guest post from Nan Hawthorne, author of AN INVOLUNTARY KING, A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. A meticulous researcher, Nan has a fascinating blog and her novel has received much critical acclaim.

The Historical Novel Review says:
". . .During the 8th century in a land called Críslicland, tragedy forces the unlikely hero, Lawrence upon the throne of the kingdom. His struggle to gather the wisdom, honor, and self-confidence to be a good king is the underlying catalyst that drives this rich tale forward. Undying love, humorous characters, treachery, and intrigue either grace or plague his life as he struggles to vanquish his many foes and return to the bosom of his loving family.The characters gush with integrity, endearing themselves to the reader. The prose is vibrant and the battle scenes so authentic that I found myself drawn inextricably into the ever-developing, engaging story. Nan Hawthorne’s passion for the medieval era is skillfully weaved into a tapestry of enchantment in this engrossing story. A must read for medieval enthusiasts. "
You can visit Nan and find out more about her work at:

Word Rivets:
On Quibbling about Language in Historical Fiction
by Nan Hawthorne

I paid attention to historical accuracy when I wrote An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England. The novel is based on stories a friend and I wrote as teenagers, and though it is set in a fictional Saxon kingdom in the late 8th century, I gave it my attention. I could call it alternate history and get away with anachronistic murder, but while preserving elements of the adolescents' vision, I got rid of the castles and knights and replaced them with timber stockades and shield walls. Home free? Not a chance.

My husband uses the expression "rivet counters" to refer to people who pick away at minor or irrelevant mistakes in historical fiction. He refers to those people who cannot get through a movie like "Titanic" without pointing out there are too few rivets in the hell. Thus, rivet counters are those people who overlook all the characteristics of fiction, in particular the skill of the storytelling, to point out trivial inaccuracies.

I quickly learned as I embarked on my career as a historical novelist that the author is as much or more likely to be jumped on for "too few rivets" as for any thinness of plot or unevenness of character development. It became apparent to me quickly that my fate was to have these irrelevant peccadilloes pointed out in scathing terms in public. It has, so far, only happened to me personally a couple of times, but I watch other authors getting creamed for what boil down to the critic's own beliefs and often misunderstanding of the author's chosen era. In particular, however, I want to address a criticism that is so obviously illogical I am surprised it is uttered at all, and that is the use of certain terms to denote an object or other concept in another time. In a nutshell, "You can't use that word because it did not exist in that year."

I personally got this one when I set up The Blue Lady Tavern blog ( and was informed that there was no word "tavern" in the late 8th century, that it did not come into use until the 13th century. Um, yeah, that's right. But then they didn't have the words "blue" or "lady" either.. they did not speak the English we do. It's the same as saying I could not call the establishment "The Blue Lady Tavern" because there were no such words in Tagalog at the time. Another writer told me how she was corrected when she used the word "pitcher", as no such word existed at that time. I promptly produced for her pictures of Anglo Saxon era pitchers. She had been told to use the word "jug". Do her critics mean that the Saxons called both jugs and those vessels with big looped handles "jugs"? How did they distinguish between them? Or could it be.. that they spoke a different language than we do and called them neither jugs nor pitchers?

There are two issues at work in this sort of word rivet counting. One is the old "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". Someone got a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and started looking words up. So they find that the first written reference to pitchers is not until the 14th century". But the word was not coined at the same time. The word had been in existence for some period of time before someone had occasion to write it down. Use and documentation are quite different matters. When you recall that most writing for many hundred years was done by clerics it becomes possible to imagine that many words might not have made it into print for generations.

More germane to my own use of "tavern" is the fact that when I write about the late 8th century in Lincolnshire I am in theory writing a complete translation. If I wrote the book in accurate language, the entire 648 pages would be in Old English, as in "Sume is incumen in, lhude singe cuccu." When I take whatever word a real person from that era uses to refer to a place where you can go to get a bowl of ale, it is my job as the writer to choose a word that expresses the idea so the reader can form a picture in his or her mind. Sure, I could have used "ale house" but that's not Old English either. I think tavern works fine. At least I didn't call it The Blue Lady Nightclub or The Blue Lady Disco!

I for one do not understand this quibbling over approximate or interchangeable terms. Why do some people insist on counting rivets? Yes, I want realistic settings and the history correct in those novels that are based on actual events. But these books aren't and never were intended to be nonfiction history. I appreciate those authors who add an author's note explaining which characters were real and which invented for the novel, what liberties were taken with the real history to make a more cohesive story. What really happened and what was made up. But in the long run, novels are about people and their lives, their stories and their feelings, their struggles and how they overcame them. The lovers in Titanic were not real, there were no such passengers on the ship, no massive jewel thrown into the sea. But Jack's and Rose's love, their self-sacrifice, their enduring will, those are things we can relate to and make us care about other human beings. How sad to miss it when concentrating on the rivets, "425, 426, 427…"

Nan Hawthorne is the author of "An Involuntary King: A Tale of Anglo Saxon England" available in print and in a digital edition via Shield-wall Books , as well as for blind and print impaired readers via Her blog, Tales from Shield-wall Books ( is updated daily.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post!

Someone called me on the carpet for having a carpet in my novel, which she said weren't in use at the time. In fact, had she done a little checking she would have discovered that they were, though only among the richest people, and my character certainly qualified as such.

Great points about the language. I must say, though, I read a romance novel set in 13th-14th-century England where in the opening page the heroine's best chum asked the heroine if she had "gone all the way" yet. That did grate.

Justin Aucoin said...

I get this a lot from family and friends who I get early feedback from. Sometimes I'll agree that the word I use sounds "too modern" and fix it appropriately, but other times it sounds fine to me, I've seen it used by other established historical fiction writers, and think it's better than my alternatives.

Nice column. :-)

Nan Hawthorne said...


Thanks for your kind words!

Susan H, I agree about the egregious anachronisms.. and you can tell you are going to find them right away. I turned off "Sea of Trolls" a couple pages in because the little girl, living in 8th century Anglo Saxon England, was named Lucy and was fascinated by castles and knights... to me that shows a lack of a sense of the world the characters lived in.

However, I do not pretend these two feet here are made of anything but the finest clay.


Nan Hawthorne said...

P.S. Justin, I don't know how I got Susan out of your name.. my apologies and also my thanks.

Nan Hawthorne

C.W. Gortner said...

I'm so glad that Nan offered to do this guest post.

I think our language must be adapted for the modern-day reader; it's a matter of accessibility. I avoid overt modernisms as much as I can, particularly in dialogue, but still I've had a few people tell me they felt Juana's thoughts were "too modern" for a woman of her era. To each, his or her own.

I wanted to also thank Nan for this wonderful, insightful guest post. I'm hoping to invite / lure / entice more writers to guest post, as I find it far more interesting than an interview. What do you think?

Justin Aucoin said...

As much as interviews are fun to read, I think these guest posts are more interesting, too. The last couple of guest post topics have been fun to read and I leave feeling like I learned something. What? Education and fun? Madness, I say! :-)

Carla said...

Great post! I think this sentence sums it all up: "When I take whatever word a real person from that era uses to refer to a place where you can go to get a bowl of ale, it is my job as the writer to choose a word that expresses the idea so the reader can form a picture in his or her mind"

It's the idea created by the words in the reader's mind that's important. This is always going to be an interaction between the writer and the reader, so it will vary from one reader to another. (Which is another way of saying that it's probably imposible to please everybody all the time). A reader with some knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England might well recognise a word like 'fyrd' as meaning a sort of part-time soldiery, but someone who doesn't know anything about the period will at least have to stop and work out the meaning from the context, or may have to go and look it up. Which is fine, but the characters in the story wouldn't have had to stop and think about the meaning, it would have been as instantly recognisable to them as 'automobile' is to us. I think that immediate recognition is important to creating a world that feels 'real' to the reader, whereas too many unfamiliar words can have the effect of distancing the reader from the novel.
As CW says, it's a matter of accessibility.

Michelle Moran said...


And fantastic post , Nan!

C.W. Gortner said...

I agree! I'm really glad this post generated some interesting discussion.

I'm going to invite more authors to guest post, too. I'll still do some interviews but I think making the blog available to others would make it much more vibrant. Also, if any of you (Justin?) want to post about something let me know. Justin, btw, is a marvelous poet, writer and pirate re-enactor, everyone, so he's surely got some tall tales to tell . . .

Justin Aucoin said...

It would be an honor to write a guest post. Now, I just need to think of a topic... :-)

Augustina Peach said...

I really appreciate this post, having been enticed to become a rivet-counter as I was writing my own book.

I did try to use words that were likely to have been in use in the 1820s, as well as words that would have been ones an uneducated young woman (the narrator of the book) would have known. Did I succeed? Maybe. I caught myself on using "OK," (as in "Are you OK?") since that was an abbreviation for "Old Kinderhook," a nickname used for Martin Van Buren in his 1840s presidential campaign. However, according to my dictionary (not the Oxford, btw) (ha ha), "sass" wasn't around until the 1830s. But I REALLY needed to use the word "sass" - nothing else worked. That's when I decided not to be TOO diligent in my rivet counting. After all, as Nan points out, "in the long run, novels are about people and their lives, their stories and their feelings, their struggles and how they overcame them." If I'm reading something that really engages me, I'm not thinking about whether the language is anachronistic. Only if it's something that slaps me in the face (like Daniel Boone saying, "That's totally awesome, dude!") do I even care.