Slip Ups and Errors

I rarely like to think back to errors made in previous books. Well, not with my own books, anyway.

This last weekend, I was very glad to be asked to Scarborough for their annual Literary Festival, and while up there, I was made to reflect upon books past. A lady from the audience wanted to know how authors felt about writing books that were clearly anachronistic, because they didn’t represent the way people spoke accurately.

It’s hard. I clearly recall Ian Morson saying, when he and I shared a stage once, that he worked very hard to avoid modern language seeping into his work. He would happily use words that were modern and colloquial, but one one book, while trying to think of a suitable term for a man being sent into a trance-like state, he tied himself into knots. He couldn’t use “hypnosis” because that was a very modern term; Mesmerism was worse, since it was based on Mr Mesmer, who wouldn’t be born for centuries.

All historical authors have to struggle and work their way around this one. It’s damn hard to figure out the best way to get round it. Personally, I think the only thing a writer can do is give a good “feel” for the way people spoke. It would be impossible, for example, to accurately reflect the way that people really spoke in the 1320s. They spoke Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Norman French, and Latin, with a smattering of other languages depending upon their travels and their experiences. To render their tongue into modern English would be a major task. And it would be irrelevant to the reader.

Just as a reader of Juvenal or Tolstoy would expect to find it translated into modern, comprehensible English by a translator, so I think readers expect me to similarly translate for my characters.

And even then, when I do use medieval terms, I can be told off. one reader was unhappy to read of “posses” in my books, saying they brought her up sharp to read a clearly modern word in a story purporting to be about medieval England. I had to point out that “Posse Commitatus” was a legal term from the Statutes of Winchester, 1285.

But there are some slip-ups that cause more problems.

I was recently going through a book (a published novel) which had some technical errors that were, to me at least, glaring.

For example, it used phrases such as “cocked crossbows”. Well, crossbows were “spanned”, but never “cocked”. Originally called a “dog”, in later days the little lever holding the flint in the flintlock was termed the “cock”. So I was a little irritable. But then matters deteriorated. Weapons were apportioned to groups of warriors who would not have used them. While writing about the 1290s, he mentioned a force of English longbowmen, which was well ahead of their time. Long bows weren’t going to be routinely used in the English arsenals until Haldon Hill, against the Scots. And when the writer started talking about gunpowder and “grenades”, I really did lose much of my patience. Yes, I can suspend disbelief for a while, but there are limits to my abilities.

One inaccuracy that always annoys me is people talking about “quarterstaffs”, as though they were a specific weapon. They were not. A staff was a standard tool for much of our history, and some people learned specific defensive arts with them. It was a good idea: a man would always carry his staff with him. It wasn’t a mere prop for walking. It would hold outlaws at bay, which is why beadles, watchmen and sheriff’s men would routinely be armed with iron-shod staffs.

A staff could be used “half-staff” or “quarter-staff”. Each referred to the amount of the staff that was gripped between the hands. Thus half-staff meant a half of the staff was gripped, usually the middle section, with two quarter-lengths protruding beyond the grip. A man could jab with each end, block overhead blows, and generally cause mayhem. By shifting his grip to hold only one quarter of the staff between his hands, he could become a still more dangerous opponent. He would now have a long weapon with which to strike, like a man with a lance. Stabbing and swinging this, he could hold a swordsman out of reach or threaten a man on horseback. A staff was a useful weapon. A quarter-staff was a means of fighting with one, not a different or specific weapon in its own right!

For more on staffs, the history of English fighting, and weapons generally, I can recommend Terry Brown’s excellent English Martial Arts, published by Anglo-Saxon Books.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t get things wrong. I am prone to silly errors in my books, and I am inordinately glad for professional editors and copyeds to correct my more ridiculous slips. But that’s because every author has a responsibility to make sure that his or her writing is accurate.

Happy reading!

5 Responses to “Slip Ups and Errors”
  1. Alan Cassady-Bishop says:

    The problem is to write for the modern audience’s knowledge but only using the old (contemporary) terminology. This is why I’ve a lot of patience with authors who use modern idiom in speech but keep setting and “mechanics” within period. Let’s face it – it’s all in context and not all Romans spoke in the way Juvenal or Suetonius wrote.


    • I quite agree, Alan. There is a lot of nonsense spoken about the use of language in historical books. I just try to steer a middle ground where glaring modernisms are avoided!


  2. knotrune says:

    I didn’t know that about staffs, thanks :)
    While I’d love to read a novel with genuine Middle English dialogue I know I am in a very small minority :) although I did enjoy a time travel story (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis) several years ago which cleverly used it at first, then mixed with modern English as the character gradually came to understand the language.


    • I like the sound of the Doomsday story, but while I’d love to be able to write in Middle English, I’ve never found time to get past page 50 of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer!


      • knotrune says:

        Middle English and Old English are not the same. The Anglo-Saxons used Old English, which is a pure Germanic language and like learning an entirely foreign language. But from the Norman invasions the language was altered and gradually changed over time, eventually becoming modern English. By the 14th century it is probably closer to modern than to Old English. Have you tried reading Chaucer or Malory in the original? Very much easier than Sweet :)


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