One of the big challenges of writing historical fiction is finding the right voice. No one wants to read something that sounds like the medieval English of The Canterbury Tales; we couldn’t understand it for starters! But if a story is written in language that’s too modern, it’s jarring. You may have read historical novels that read more like People Magazine than, say, a medieval adventure set in Lithuania (I made up the Lithuania part).
So in writing the trilogy, The Tiger and the Dove, set in the thirteenth century in Rus’ (the parent of both Ukraine and Russia), a major choice was finding language that would neither jar nor be unintelligible. My solution was to make sure that none of the words were newer than from 600 years ago. I figured it might take at least a few decades to migrate from the spoken to the written word and from French or Latin into English, so that calculation added somewhere between 50 and 100 more years to the antiquity of the language.
But it eliminated a lot of words and phrases that we take for granted; they didn’t yet exist. For instance, Sofia couldn’t ‘introduce’ someone to someone else. After struggling with the awkward ‘made known to’, I changed to ‘presented’, which comes later as she begins writing in another language. Of course, Sofia wasn’t writing in English but in Rus’ and then Frankish and Latin, and still in some ways thinking in Rus’—but I don’t want to give too much away.
There was another challenge to the voice I had to find for my heroine, Princess Sofia Vladymyrovna. She’s barely out of childhood when she begins her story. By the time she finishes it, she is in her late thirties, has traveled untold miles, been exposed to a myriad of new cultures, and had to learn at least six languages.
In the first novel, The Grip of God, Sofia thinks, speaks, and behaves like a young teenager. But she has to grow up overnight when she’s captured and enslaved by Mongols. She starts her story in her native language, but in the Mongol camps she learns new languages and dialects that influence how she speaks and thinks. In fact, everything she took for granted is challenged by a strange prophecy about her, the ugly politics in her master’s family, and the many religions she encounters.
In the second novel, Solomon’s Bride, Sofia escapes the frying pan of the Mongols and falls into the fire of the Assassins, the Crusader wars, and lots more. So I had to present her growing into young womanhood while confronting more life challenges, love challenges, and language challenges that affect how she expresses herself. By the time she finishes this second installment of her story, not only is she now an adult, she is no longer writing in the Rus’ tongue, but she doesn’t always use words as a native speaker would.
In the third novel, Consolamentum, Sofia is writing as a woman of the world who must face a whole new set of life challenges that nearly break her spirit. And again she has had to learn more new languages, including Veneziano, Italian, and the forerunner of French, which gives you some hints about where her adventures take her next.
Last, Sofia thinks as a medieval woman does, not as a modern woman would. There’s so much she doesn’t know that we take for granted, and there are assumptions she and others make that might seem strange to us. Talk about a challenge! But what happens in the end is that we see much of Sofia in ourselves: her complexity, her heartache and her triumphs. Because in the end, I believe we transcend the boundaries of language in our shared experience of love, confusion, and longing for what is good.