Thursday, January 8, 2009

That Can't Be Right

When you write, do you think about every word in its own right? If you’re like me, you’ll find some words that just don’t quite fit. So, you go to your Thesaurus and try a number of synonyms until you find a word that implicitly expresses what you’re trying to say.

For a historical, not only do you want the perfect word, but you have to ensure it existed in the era of your novel. Or, maybe not so much existed but was used in that context. For example, read the following scene:

‘1875, Wyoming Territory
Dan joined the bevy of people on the Medicine Bow platform. He grasped a bouquet of daisies that he tried to keep clear of the surging crowd. Emma had to be on this train. He stood on the balls of his feet and tried to see inside a passenger car. A young cowboy shoved past him and bumped into an older gentleman who muttered an expletive. The cowboy turned to face the man. Before Dan could react, the cowboy drew his pistol and shot the man in the chest right there in plain view of everyone.
“Jerk,” the cowboy muttered as he walked away through the parting crowd.’

What was your next thought?

a. Dan should go after the cowboy.
b. Someone should see if the victim was still alive.
c. The slang term ‘jerk’ didn’t exist in that context in 1875.

Of course, the first two answers are good possibilities but as a wordsmith, you should know that, ‘jerk’ used in the context of an insult didn’t appear until 1919. (Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang)

In my post last Thurs, a historical author friend of mine stopped by with a comment. Kelly said, ‘My biggest faux pas is the word "okay" in historicals.’

What? She certainly got my attention with that one. Of all the words I check, I never thought about ‘okay’. But, I did after that.

One of my wordsmith sources is the Online Etymology Dictionary so I headed over to and it appears that the earliest use of ‘okay’ was as a Boston and New York slang fad in 1838-9.

Phew. I don’t have to search ‘An Outlaw for the Lady’ for ‘okay’ because it was already in use by 1875.

So, why did Kelly say that? Ah - because she writes Regency’s and the Regency period was c1790-1820. So, for Kelly’s historicals, the term ‘okay’ would not have existed.

Does it really matter? Yes! You need to strive for historical accuracy for your own reputation if not for any other reason.

But, here’s why I spend so much time in research: In the above example of Dan waiting on the train platform, I’m trying to draw you into the story. I wrote that a few minutes ago and didn’t spend much time on it but, if it were in my novel, I’d want you to be so totally engrossed in the story that when the cowboy walks away, you feel outrage...or horror...fear...or sorrow...anything to get your little heart beating faster. I'd probably end the chapter there and you'd start the next one because you want to see what our hero is going to do next.

Yet suddenly, the whole mood evaporates because you’re thinking...wait a minute...that can’t be right. Did they really say ‘jerk’ back then?

How long will it take to get you back into that story to the same level you were at before your brain kicked in? If you’re like most readers, you’ve been reading page after page...just one more page and you’ll put it down...just one more...

The ultimate goal is for a reader to be so engrossed in the story that he/she can’t put it down.

But once the illusion is shattered, it might be minutes, hours or even days before the reader picks up that book and gets back into the story.

As a writer, isn’t it worth it to take the extra time? Have you read any books that made you stop and question a word or a phrase? Have you ever written something that was caught by an editor or even ended up in print?


Anonymous said...

Look! I got quoted! :) Hey, Anita, great article and great points. Another thing to keep in mind is that even if YOU are accurate and use a word that's appropriate, it might still through a reader in a spin if THEY don't think it's accurate. So with dubious things like "Yeah" or referencing "wrigley's chewing gum", while you may be right, you may also wish to use a different phrase or item for those readers who don't know the origins.

Like breast feeding in the regency. Boy I had to fight for that one with an editor, even clipping pictures of dresses and multiple sources to prove it.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Kel, now you really have me worried. LOL

I know some writers like using trademarked names like 'Wrigley's' or 'StarBucks' or ...

And, I've heard some editors like them too because they feel a reader relates more to the story, but, I've always steered away from them although I couldn't really tell you why.

Karen said...

I admire writers who choose to write novels that take place in a different time. The amount of research they need to do to be knowledgeable about day to day matters, never mind the details, seems daunting to me. Thank goodness they do because I enjoy historicals.

When I pick up a book I'm trusting the author did their research and they are giving me a true representation of the period they are writing in because, frankly, you could slip things by me and I'd never know the difference. Credibility is very important. Having said that, I do feel a little poetic license plays a part in certain stories. I'm one of those readers who needs her hero to bath regularly (even in winter) and be in possession of all his strong white teeth. Two hundred years ago that might not have been the norm for most men. I want my story to be accurate but I also want it to be appealing.

Great post, Anita, it really made me think.


Hope Chastain said...

One of my oft-quoted "favorite" anachronisms took place in a Regency, where the Hero and his best friend were at the home of one of the candidates for his affection. The young lady was about to play the harp (badly, one gathered). Hero & friend exchange a look and then one says, "Let's split." (Used in slang to mean "make a hasty departure" starting only in the late 1960s; before which it was used to mean "tell on someone.") It really was hard to get back into the Regency mood after that.

Bravo, Anita Mae! You've touched on a point that more writers of historicals need to watch more closely. There is one truly fine writer of Christian romances whose historicals I can't read, because Mom read them first and told me about all the spoken anachronisms, e.g., "How fun." "Much" was only dropped from the phrase in the late 1980s and early '90's.

I know I'm a lot pickier than most readers, but there are more like me out there, and not only do the writers need to be educated on historical periods, but the editors do, too.

Keep up the good work! God bless you!

Hope Chastain said...

PS: it would have been to say "What fun!" but "How fun!" is too late 20th century & early 21st...

Hope the Picky One

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great post Anita, this is something I find myself thinking about a lot lately. I will be bookmarking the Etymology link, for sure.

In exchange I'll mention a book I'm still meaning to pick up, which has been highly recommended. English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh, which also goes over a great deal of slang words and phrases. Interestingly, it says the phrase 'knocked up' goes back to 1665. That's an eyebrow-raiser for sure.

The other issue I find I'm often dealing with as far as jargon and dialect goes, is trying to reconcile a medieval/renn/ambiguous sword-and-sorcery setting in fantasy fiction with a style of language that readers can still identify with. Historical accuracy doesn't necessarily apply to the same extent, and if I kept to the period and wrote Middle English... well, goodbye audience :p

Hmm.. sounds like I have next week's blog subject!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Karen, thanks for your kind words.

I'm with you on the bathing bit. There's one book I read in particular that I can't remember the name, but it was set in Viking times. I only remember that the heroine is taken to his castle as his cook/servant etc because he has no one else. And, this guy bathes like every night. He was a very clean smelling hero.

I liked the fact he was so clean, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking they never took baths that many times back then...

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hello Hope, thank you so much for stopping by again.

I hope you'll come back because I have a question for you:

speaking of anachronisms, I would like to quote your website and it's fantastic links to historic costumes and accessories.

I thought you linked to the Society of Creative Anachronism costume pages as well, but I can't find your link now.

Anyway, I truly appreciate all the insights you're giving to writing historicals. Thanks again.

Janet said...

Food for thought, Anita. I, like Hayley, am going to bookmark your link to the etymology site for future reference.

Another point to make is in naming the characters who inhabit your historical world. I had a 'Penny' in my first draft - until a couple of beta readers told me that every time they read that name, it took them out of the story. So, back to my research - and yes, 'Penny' was appropriate for that time period, but popular on the continent, not in England. So 'Penny' quickly became 'Helene'!

Great blog, great info. And for what's it worth, my hero in my medieval bathes. There are some things about historical accuracy that WOULD take me out of the love story.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Great post and very informative. Like Hayley, I'm going to bookmark the site you mentioned.

So far I have written only contemporary, but I have a couple of WWII era stories pulling at me and someday I'd love to try my hand at an historical, especially Regency. But the task is daunting, considering the research involved, and that's just in the words used at the time! I really admire writers who tackle different eras.

A question: do you have any favorite sources, like websites, dictionaries etc. that you use when you write your contemporaries?

Jana Richards

Suse said...

Hi Anita,

You sure are giving us a lot to think about. Great job!

I don't write historicals although I read them. Even though I write contemporary, I think it is still important to be familiar with the words I use.

Sometimes we may use use words in contemporary writing we're familiar with from our historical reading. For example the other day, one of my coworkers used the word "chilblain". I knew what she was referring to but my other coworker did not. I think I had become familiar with that word by reading historical romances. This is a word that a lot of readers of contemporary romance would not be familiar. If you don't know what is a chilblain, check it out of the Etymology link, which I too have put in my favorites. Although at work, I checked this word out on which also gives the origin.

I agree with everyone else that my hero and my heroine should be clean.

I can see that Hayley would have some extra challenges with the genre she writes in.

So many things to think about and remember. Whoever said writing was easy?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Hayley, it's nice of you to stop by. So, you're a fantasy writer.

I can see where writing fantasy would be incorporating a whole new set of rules, eh. I think it's nice that you want to stay as historically accurate as possible while transporting us into a world of make believe (as my grade level reader used to read).

I love the reference to 'knocked up' but it seems so...modern. LOL

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Janet, you're right about the names and I'm actually working on a blog post with info and links where people can go to confirm names in different time periods.

I like your Penny example.

If I do end up doing the post on this subject, can I quote you?

Or...were you going to write one on this subject?

Janet said...

You go right ahead, Anita. I'm enjoying your blogs on historical referencing/words/slang so much - and look forward to more. And, no, that's not even on my radar for blog posts at this time.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Jana, I'm so glad you're finding my post useful.

You said:
' you have any favorite sources, like websites, dictionaries etc. that you use when you write your contemporaries?'

Well, yes. One of the reasons I love my laptop so much is because of the built-in Thesaurus at my fingertips. Rarely a sentence goes by without me hitting the 'Big T' at least once checking to see if there's a better word that would fit.

I also use my laptop's on-line dictionary link and of course the Etymology site at times to see if I'm using a word in its proper context but when I want to delve deeper into a word, I use WordNet-Online at which is a thesaurus/dictionary combination.

Also, the OneLook Reverse Dictionary at comes in handy because it lets you use a group of words or a concept when that one perfect word is at the tip of your tongue but you just can't grasp it.

Oh - and I'd like to thank Hayley for the head's up on English Through the Ages. I'll have to check that out.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse - no, writing is not easy. And, if we can have all this wonderful information available to us, so can the readers.

I'm glad you brought up the comment about the word 'chilblain'. I think that's a good example of what Karen was saying in her post yesterday about not reading the same genre you're writing.

I'm getting weary just thinking about all the things I have to watch out for before my final draft could ever be considered complete. I'm in the middle of revisions to a contemporary inspy novel and I'm trying to get it done by BIAW on the 17th, so this is all good stuff for me, too. :-)

Thank you, Suse.

Anita Mae Draper said...

I'd like to thank all of your who've taken time out of your busy lives to comment here. Your kind words are an inspiration to me.

Anita Mae Draper said...

(Anita reads her last comment and sighs. Maybe she should stop posting about accuracies in writing...ya think?)