23 March, 2006

Place names in historical fiction

There are two basic approaches to place names in historical fiction; either use the modern names of places, or use the names from the relevant period (where known). Since many British and European place names are quite old, for novels set in the fairly recent past there may be little if any difference between the modern name and the period name and no difficulty arises. But for novels set in a more distant past, when the prevailing culture and language were different and the period names have since been replaced (sometimes more than once) and bear little resemblance to the modern names, there can be a dilemma. Which approach is better for the reader?

Two Roman-set books I’ve recently reviewed, The Little Emperors and Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, take the latter approach and use Roman place names, with conjectural place names invented by the author where the actual period name is not known. Conversely, Julia by William Napier (review forthcoming in due course), also set in Roman Britain, uses modern place names throughout. In his introductory note William Napier says he chose to use modern names because a modern reader would not know where the places are if he used period names, and would therefore have to stop and look them up on a map.

Which interested me. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped reading a story to look up a place name on a map, unless I was already getting bored. I trust the author and/or the characters to tell me what I need to know about the geography to follow the story; e.g. if the place is a strategic fortification, or a long way away, or over difficult terrain, etc. I may well go and look up the places on a modern map later, but for me a strange name doesn’t break into the flow of the story at all. Whereas a modern name really throws me. Whenever a modern name like London, York or Boulogne appears, the picture I get in my head is always modern City office blocks, York Minster, or the Speed Ferries cross-channel ferry dock, respectively. I have to consciously stop and think ‘No, no, this is Roman, it looked different then’. Period names like Londinium, Eboracum or Gesoriacum at least keep me in the right time period and don’t jolt me out of the story, even if I don’t recognise their location.

Which approach do you prefer? Are unfamiliar period names an unecessary barrier to the reader? Do modern names jar you out of the story?


Susan Higginbotham said...

Interesting question. I think that if I read a novel set in Roman times, I would prefer the Roman place names. I guess it's a question of atmosphere. For something set in medieval times, I'd just as soon as have the modern names, probably for the reasons of culture and language that you mention.

But I'm hopelessly geographically illiterate, so if a novel has lots of place names, they'll all blur together to me anyway, and an author can get away with all sorts of stuff where me and geography are concerned.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

I prefer the Roman names. Modern names would jolt me out of the story. Most authors nowadays provide a map and modern names for the towns they mention.

I happily read Patrick O'Brian without knowing what all the nautical terms mean, and Dorothy Dunnett without knowing the Scots dialect or being able to translate the foreign quotations she puts in the mouths of some of her characters. Neither author provides a glossary or translations but their storytelling and characterization are so captivating that my ignorance doesn't matter and it seems to me that these elements add to the richness and atmosphere of the books even if you don't know what they all mean. And if you want an additional challenge, you can look them up later, perhaps to enrich a second reading of the books.

I'll be interested to see what you think of William Napier's "Julia". I reviewed it somewhere ages ago. I'll see if I can find it.

Gabriele C. said...

I prefer Roman names, too. And Saxon ones later on. :)

It's more difficult with Mediaeval setting. Mediaeval names seem to be even less well known than some Roman ones except for famous places. I don't see a problem in using Nidaros instead of Trondheim, it's a rather well known one. But Brunswik or Brunesguik instead of Braunschweig? Not two sources spell the name alike to begin with. I'd also have to use an old spelling for Dankwarderode Castle (castrum Tanquarderoth) in that case, and a dozen others. Would it add to the Mediaeval atmosphere or just confuse readers?

Maps are always a good idea, though. I like to look places up.

Rick said...

I can't see why a map, or simply a list of ancient and modern names, wouldn't do the job. Modern names in a Roman-setting book would be jarring.

That said, I can somewhat understand why he did it, as a (presumably) British writer writing for mainly British readers who knows these places (by their modern names) in terms of their topography and so on.

It would be lost on me, since my English geography, beyond a handful of places, is dreadfully weak - if someone travels from London to Lancaster, I have only the vaguest notion of how far their going or in what direction. So using the ancient names doesn't make me any more ignorant. :)

Medieval is somewhat different - to take Gabriele's example, "Brunswik" is clearly the same word as Braunschweig. Spelling and dialect variations like this are a different matter from completely different names, or ones altered out of recognition (like Eboracum and York).

Bernita said...

Sometimes the "korrect" place names are so lost and obscure that they might as well exist in an alternative universe, and one gets completely lost among the "geraniums" ( Asterix). So I agree with Rick.
If there's a choice - as there sometimes is - pick the simplest or the one most recognizable as the modern alternative.

ali said...

I have problems with both. Modern names look wrong, out of place. But I do have to go and look up older names on a map, just so I know where everything is and can imagine what's happening.

If there's a map in the book, I prefer older names. It's no effort to look them up, and they make the story seem more 'real'.

If there's no map in the book, I'd prefer modern names. Unlike you, I would go look them up on the internet, just because I need to know where everything is!

Carla said...

I meant to ask if a map and/or glossary would be useful, and the consensus seems to be clear that they would be.

Gabriele - I personally wouldn't have a problem with unfamiliar medieval names, as long as the author didn't expect me to have background knowledge about where they were or why they were important. So I don't mind 'Brunesguik' instead of 'Braunschweig', but I don't know anything about the place under either name so I'd want the author and/or characters to tell me.

Rick - I have a similar blind spot about US geography! And quite a lot of Europe and the Middle East.

Sarah - I do the same with Patrick O'Brien and Hornblower, being the sort of person who can never remember what the pointy end of a boat is called :-) But both authors take care to explain what effect all the nautical actions have - e.g. the ship turns, or goes aground, or can't outrun the enemy, or whatever - so I can hop along behind and still have some idea what's going on. O'Brien sometimes uses Stephen Maturin to provide an explanation, which also helps. Foreign quotations are more of a problem if they get excessive; my one complaint about Busman's Honeymoon was that Peter and Harriet said so much in French.

jta said...

I like to see the old place-names, even if I don't know them already. Learning a bit of fine-grained history is one of the benefits of reading period fiction, and anachronisms of any kind really do pull me out of the story. A map with parenthetical translations would solve the problem.

Alex Bordessa said...

I'd go with the Roman names, for most of the reasons already mentioned. Sorry, I'm a bit late to this comment! I'll be interested in your review of Julia too - I remember reading it ...