A Word about Language

I'm something of a movie lover—I enjoy both mainstream films and less well-known independent offerings. This year will be the first year in a while that I've not attended the Sundance Film Festival (I actually loved waiting outside in the snow to get into a theater, or nervously keeping an eye on the waitlist to see if I could get into a movie that interested me), and I will miss it—some of the best movies I've ever seen were in the "shorts" programs, or the documentaries, and then there were the ones I just knew would go mainstream, so I felt fortunate to get an insider early viewing.

So it's not surprising that watching films forms part of my research for my writing—but I don't watch current drama to help build a sense of place in my mind, mainly because there's too much license with history in contemporary films to make it worthwhile, and the accents and use of language have changed so much over the years. For example, the "Cockney" accent (as distinguished from other parts of London, beyond the Bow Bells) of today is nothing like that of the 1930's, and has been superseded by forms of what are known as "Estuary English"—a dialect found in parts of London bordering the Thames estuary. Having said that, the late (wonderful) John Mills was better with the officer's accent than the working man's mode of speech in a few of his films, and we all know what Dick van Dyke did with the Cockney accent! But I'm more interested in the way sentences are constructed. When I write, I ask myself if my grandmother would have said something a certain way. For example, "presently" was a word you heard a lot in the eras in which I set my novels. Nowadays we might say, "I'll do that soon," whereas years ago it would have been, "I'll do that presently." By the same token, "Shan't"—or "sha'n't"—has become "can't" or "won't." I have an English friend who still uses the abbreviation "shalln't"—as in "I shalln't be going to the movies this evening after all."


With that in mind, I've been wading through some old films produced during the Second World War. This week it was Millions Like Us—a wartime propaganda film made in 1943, one of the films that really brought the role of women to the fore, and to show the huge contribution women in particular were making on the home front—and it also demonstrated how everyone had to register to do their "National Service."

There are dance hall scenes with soldiers whisking the factory girls around the floor—and they used real soldiers and women workers as extras!


One thing that struck me about the movie was the music being played in the dance hall scene. Young people in Britain loved the swing music originating in the USA—hence the success of American bands in the UK at the time—but so often the music provided in dance halls was background for the foxtrot and waltz, as is the case in the movie. In TO DIE BUT ONCE, the new novel in the Maisie Dobbs series (published on March 27th) you'll meet a young woman who complains to Maisie that her father thinks she listens to Gracie Fields—he loves the old happy-go-lucky "Music Hall" numbers ("Vaudeville" as Music Hall is known in the USA). But the girl wants to go dancing to the swing bands—though while complaining about her father, she gives Maisie a valuable piece of information that will prove to be crucial to her investigation.

Gracie Fields was a "National Treasure" in Britain, though in reality she was losing popularity among the young by the time WW2 rolled around. But "Our Gracie" traveled extensively and worked tirelessly to entertain the troops at home and overseas, and is one of the vocalists associated with the music of WW2 in Britain—her memory is held with great affection; she was lovely.


There's much to consider when writing an historical novel. Sometimes there is pressure to just let the "facts" go, not only because the most important thing is the story, rather than the research, but because what the general population believes to be true, is actually completely incorrect. The dilemma is therefore one of satisfying a reader or being a stickler for the facts. I once had this conversation with writer Cara Black as she had been faced with this challenge. Because her novels are set in Paris, readers expect her to use the word "gendarme" in connection with the police—yet a gendarme is a country policeman, not a city cop! She gets loads of letters correcting her! Of course, she sticks to the facts, but what does one do about readers who have an image of Paris that has just been countered in a work of fiction? This same issue of language comes up time and again—I cringe when I hear a contemporary locution in an historical TV show or movie, or read it in a book. But perhaps for people who cannot remember or were not familiar with the older locution, hearing a sentence constructed in a way that is so different from their own manner of speaking can spoil a story. It's certainly food for thought, though I think my husband gets a bit fed up with me saying, "They would never have said that!"

I'll be writing more about TO DIE BUT ONCE soon, with stories about my background research and inspiration for the novel.

Until then ...


PS: My website has just been completely redesigned so it better reflects the more recent books in the series. One of the additions is to the Newsletter Archive, where you can now see what I wrote about in my past newsletters—and it was usually something in connection with the years 1913-1946!


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