And when you look at something like historical romance and romantic science fiction, there’s a whole secondary language of world-building that brings the reader into the right era.
I grew up reading the great gothic romances of Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney, and at the same time, I was gobbling up fantasies by Piers Anthony and Anne McCaffrey. Mary Stewart bridged both of those worlds for me with her gothic romantic mysteries and her Arthurian Merlin novels. And each of those genres had their own unique language. A reader who picked up one of Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels would expect the language of fantasy, somewhat archaic and elevated language, but also the wry, tongue-in-cheek humor Anthony is known for. If instead, the reader found contemporary, intimate first-person with a preponderance of internal monologue and anxiety, it would be jarring.
For a writer, switching between such genres can be equally discombobulating. My first novels were fantasy with romantic elements (with some erotic fantasy romance mixed in), followed by a series of contemporary paranormal romances. The switch in language from fantasy to contemporary required a little getting used to, but over the past few years of writing my Sisters in Sin series, I had almost forgotten my “native” language of fantasy. When I decided my latest book would be a return to that genre, it was like going back to basics for a language refresher.
My protagonists are also from different sides of the mote, so to speak: one raised as royalty and the other a commoner. For the two characters’ points of view, I chose to switch between first person and third person as a way of distinguishing their voices, but I also used different kinds of language for both of them. Aoife, the daughter of a queen, uses few contractions and a lot of longer, more flowery words to get around saying what she really means—even to herself, while Ygraine, my little rebel thief, sounds more modern and blunt, and usually says exactly what she’s thinking.
Aoife, for example, spends a lot of time pondering how her surroundings reflect her inner world:
Below me, Yliastr’s streets were as still and lifeless as their enchanted inhabitants. I whispered to myself what I remembered. “I am the daughter of a queen.” I could not recall her name, or even my own, but I remembered her face. Full of lines, heavy with the burden of rule but kind. “The Sylph are my sworn enemies.” The melancholy symphony of crickets and river frogs ought to offer a soft accompaniment to my words, carried on a saline breeze, but they were absent. If I remembered rightly, this land ought to be situated on the coast of a vast ocean, surrounded on three sides by water, but I could not smell the sea.
My Undine soul yearned for our element. This temporary lifting of the spell could not tell me the name of my realm—or whether this town in which I stood unsleeping was even a part of it, or if we had been taken far away—but my blood knew its source.While Ygraine tends to be a bit more pragmatic, noting the basic facts of the world around her:
Ygraine shivered and pulled her collar closer against a gust of wind howling down from the mountain. Here on the edge of the centers of commerce, among the rows of comfortable stone houses flanked with abundant gardens, lawmakers and patrons of the arts had once mingled with Yliastr’s intelligentsia. But those to whom such terms might have applied no longer served a purpose under the sovereignty of the reigning monarch. Instead of warm and welcoming light spilling into the gardens and through their gates after dusk, dark holes now looked out upon the quiet streets. Inside the walled gardens, the bushes and flowerbeds, like the stately trees that lined the avenues, were skeletons painted in rime frost.
“Move along. Loitering is forbidden by the Ruling Hand.”
It was a sentence Ygraine had heard many times since the Ruling Hand had come to power. But this was the first time she’d heard it from a woman’s tongue. She had, in fact, encountered precious little from a woman’s tongue in any capacity for more months than she cared to count.
She turned her back to the lock she was picking and studied the owner of this unexpected voice. The woman was an officer of the highest rank, as evidenced by the gold braiding on the deep indigo blue of her dolman and pelisse and on the stiff indigo breeches. Silver-damasked hair, severely drawn back, accentuated an angular face from which a pair of eyes that could not settle on a truth between chestnut and olive regarded Ygraine with cool indifference. She belonged to the Undine.
When Ygraine didn’t move, the Undine’s hand did—on the hilt of her long knife. Ygraine’s gaze lingered on the exquisite fingers. What was an Undine woman of leisure, as evidenced by those well-kept hands, doing in the service of the Righteous Guard of the Ruling Hand?
“I said, move along.” The order was louder but with no more passion in it than in the ambiguous eyes. The Undine soldier had the mien and affect of a wind-up doll. A lovely, authoritarian wind-up doll. No, no. Scratch “lovely.” For fire’s sake. What in the name of Salamand’s flame was wrong with her?
“I have business here.” Ygraine nodded toward the gate as if her business were with it, an early evening meeting with a miniature portcullis of wrought iron.
Somehow, the two do eventually learn to speak the same language. And in the midst of all their court intrigue, rebellion, and layers of deception, they also have to find the right words to fall in love.
I’m still deep in revisions, trying to get it right. It’s a delicate balance trying to tie it all together—without showing the seams. But hopefully, by the time I’m done, I’ll be fluent in multiple languages.