Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Making Historical Fiction Accessible to the Modern Reader

by | February 18, 2014 | 6 comments

By Ashley York

Sarah Woodbury, author of the Gareth and Gwen Medieval Mysteries, recently commented in an article at Historical Fiction Daily that the challenge for authors of historical fiction was to make the past “accessible to modern readers without losing the spark that makes the story historical.” I agree completely but began to wonder what created “the spark.” Where did it come from? Many authors believe it is the historically accurate words we use that create the “spark.”

How can we get these words then? Some authors have etymology dictionaries right on their tool bar. I know I do. These are the links where you can put your word in and it will tell you when it was first used…or do they? What this source actually tells you is when the word was first found in a written document. What type of written document? In many time periods, it is not personal letters or even news papers but official documents. That is all that has survived. So does this actually tell you how people spoke? Comparing our speech to official documents today, I’d say no – I know I don’t talk that way. So they’re already handicapped for word usage.

Another problem with trying to use period terminology is that the meaning of many words have changed over the years. How do you know if the word you’re choosing means the same thing now as it did in the past? There are many words which have evolved to mean something else. You tell someone they look terrific. Compliment, right? Not a couple hundred years ago. Terrific and terror are related. Not a good thing. Perhaps the words should just be used to convey to the reader what you’re trying to say.

So what is it that creates the spark? I would say hands down “the spark” is the connection that the past has to the present. In a word-struggle. Their desire to survive. I recently completed my debut novel, The Bruised Thistle, about a twelfth century Crusader who went voluntarily to battle the evil that was taking over the Holy land. He comes back broken, both physically and mentally. Is that such a stretch for our imagination to understand? No. We see it today with our soldiers who volunteered to fight terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan. They return injured and scarred for life. The connection between the soldier today and the soldier of the past is their desire to fight to make the world better. It’s an innate quality that all humans have, sociopaths notwithstanding. Doesn’t that give us a much more tangible connection , a spark even, to understand history?

Ashley York
Author of Medieval Romance and Intrigue

New Release The Bruised Thistle available now


  1. Deirdre O'Mahony

    Very interesting piece. As a reader, I must agree, the storyline is what attracts me. If the language is inaccessible, it can be quite off-putting.

    • Ashley York

      I’m a reader, too, and I agree. I don’t mind learning new words but my goal in picking up a book is to escape into a world that’s different but accessible.

  2. Lynn Lovegreen

    Good post, Ashley. And which dictionary are you using? 🙂

    • Ashley York

      I have different ones that I use. Probably the one I click on the most is the free Merriam Webster Dictionary

  3. ana morgan

    i use the book English through the Ages. As you say (correctly), when a word enters a language is identifiable through official usage, but historical authors have to bridge the gap between historical accuracy and the modern reader.

    • Ashley York

      I use that one, too. I love it. I haven’t located it since we moved into our new house, though. I’m ready to buy a new one but as soon as I do, I’ll locate it. Thanks for your comment.



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