My novel about Neolithic lesbians on Orkney, Between Boat and Shore, was published on Friday by Manifold Press – information and purchase links. In this post I want to explore one of the challenges of writing a novel set in the Neolithic period, about six or seven thousand years ago: namely, deciding what words to use. At times it felt more like writing fantasy or sci-fi – constructing a different, unknown world and working out how to translate it into our own – than writing something historical.
Warning: this post contains minor spoilers about the book, the setting and the characters, although not about any major events of the plot.
Some things were actually easier. I think if I were writing a novel set a hundred years ago, I might be tempted to spend ages consulting timelines of slang and other resources, and write at least some of the dialogue in the language of the time. For the early Neolithic, this just isn’t possible – not even because it would need translating, but because we have very little idea what language was spoken anywhere in the world at that time. In Europe, it was probably whatever language became Proto-Indo-European, a language we don’t have in full but linguists can reconstruct in parts from the commonalities between later languages. I used Proto-Indo-European and its wide geographic spread in two ways: firstly, as a justification for characters who had travelled some distance around the coast of Europe being able to basically understand those in the new community where they had arrived; secondly, as inspiration for the names of characters. I applied a liberal amount of poetic license to adjust for ease of pronunciation etc., but almost every character in the book has a name based on a word calculated to have existed in Proto-Indo-European. For example, Trebbi is named from the root treb-, dwelling or settlement, which survived in the Celtic languages and will be familiar to map-readers in Cornwall and Wales as the prefix Tre-.
Apart from that, I used casual, modern British English, including a set of neopronouns. Of the many options available for nonbinary pronouns, I tried to choose a set which would suit my characters, be clear enough not to need explicit discussion in the text, and also not introduce confusion. With that in mind, I used ey/em/eir. The parallel with the sort-of patterns of he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs seems close enough that readers won’t need it explaining, or have to re-read sentences to clear up confusion about plural/singular, and the sounds work with the sounds of the names I used. (It doesn’t work with Proto-Indo-European, which apparently didn’t have third person pronouns at all… I briefly considered taking that on as a writing challenge, but couldn’t face ‘this one’ and ‘that one’ for a whole novel!)
I also gave some thought to the question of swearing – what does a Neolithic person say when they want to be rude? I found N. K. Jemison’s blog post on Fantastic Swearing very helpful here, and essentially ran with her observation that scatological language is crude almost everywhere. I also adopted her position that there was no reason for my characters to treat sexual language as swearing – and extended that to not included swear words in my sex scenes. The descriptions there use plain but specific language: ‘vulva’ rather than ‘cunt’. (The Proto-Indo-European word was something like pisda or pisdeh, by the way.)
Other choices about language followed in a similar vein. They talk about doctors rather than healers, for example, choosing modern terms rather than trying create a ‘primitive’ atmosphere. Some of the choices about language for religion were shaped by my Quaker sources of inspiration, although I tried to steer clear of technical terms. The village has a leader rather than a priest or a king, and alert readers will recognise the functions of clerk and elder in the decision-making meetings of this pre-literate society. They have ideas about the ancestors, something implied by the way people of that time and place built tombs (I invented this specific village, but their tomb is real and archaeologists do think megalithic tombs went with territory and communities). They also talk about Goddess; not the Goddess, as it would usually be put in modern English, but Goddess as a fact of life the way some people are able to talk about God.
Another question which didn’t appear until I’d finished writing the novel is how to describe the characters and their relationships. The main story line is about two women who start a romantic and sexual relationship, but is it really a lesbian romance when the story is set three thousand years before Sappho was born? On reflection I think it is. There are sensible arguments against putting modern labels on historical figures (e.g. if you call Alexander the Great bisexual, you might be describing some things about him but missing a lot about how he and his contemporaries understood sexuality). However, I don’t think those apply in the same way to fictional characters, who are at least as much a product of my culture and imagination as of the Neolithic, and probably more. My characters can be lesbians (or bisexual or nonbinary or whatever) if both I and my readers are happy to say so.
See how these choices work out in a novel by reading Between Boat and Shore now. 🙂
Many thanks to Martel Reynolds who discussed these topics with me throughout the writing process.