June 8, 2011

Words in Time

I don't know about you, but a stranger looking at the search engine history of this computer on a day that I can devote to writing would probably be (to understate the point) befuddled. In case you don't believe me, take a look at some of the things I researched yesterday alone.

Dutchman's breeches - Not to be confused with the saying that when there's enough blue in the sky to make a Dutchman a pair of breeches, it won't rain. Don't ask me who came up with that anyhow.

Richard Valentine Morris - One of the commodores sent to the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. This one at least makes sense.

Mangelwurzel - I blame Jenny entirely for that one; it had nothing to do with The White Sail's Shaking.

Lunch - I needed to know when the term came into use in America as the midday meal.

American Naval Register - This is me trying to find a decent collection of records for American ships in the 1800s.

Raincoat - Yes, I looked up raincoats. I couldn't think of the word I wanted, which turned out to be "slicker."

Bulldog - How does one describe a man who looks like a bulldog?

Buck up - When did this phrase come into use?

Dark horse - When did this phrase come into use?

An odd assortment, indeed. Quite interesting, but definitely odd. Such is the case with many authors' fields of research; my friend likes to tell about the time she asked her mother how long it would take someone to die who had been stabbed through the chest with a spear. It is particularly so, however, with those who write historical fiction, since with contemporary novels the writer does not have to worry about the use of idioms and the dates of invention of various articles. Unfortunately, this business can seem very tedious to writers and is often skipped or forgotten, which is sad in the days of fast information-finding via the internet. But accurate speech is just as important to provide depth to a story as solid facts; it's hard to stay with an author whose pre-1800s character uses "Okay" and other modern slang. Glaring mistakes like that will ruin the historical feel of any story.

The process of phrase- and word-checking varies, however, from era to era. Several people who had not yet read The Soldier's Cross asked me how I tried to maintain an authentic feel in the speech, and whether I used the language of Shakespeare. The answer to the latter is no, I certainly did not, because people in the early fifteenth century had regretfully not heard of Elizabeth I and therefore didn't speak in the Queen's English. In fact, they all spoke French. Henry V was the king who re-introduced the English language to the English court; prior to that, the upper classes (being Norman themselves) spoke French. Naturally, I couldn't write the story in French, and even if I could have it wouldn't have been the same French that they spoke in the 1400s. I had to stick to English - modern English.

This necessity gave me more freedom than I have in The White Sail's Shaking, since the very fact that the novel is written in English requires a suspension of disbelief on the reader's part, and one which I don't think anyone has trouble making. I therefore didn't spend time looking up phrases like "buck up" and searching for raincoats. I also didn't eliminate all contractions and whatnot, since that gets quite irritating for the modern reader. I simply kept the dialogue slightly formal, free of slang, and included oaths or phrases that were popular at the time, which is enough for a novel set in the Middle Ages.

But with The White Sail's Shaking, being accurate to the speech of the period is a little more taxing. (Not surprising, since it seems that everything about White Sail's is more taxing than my two previous novels!) They did speak English, and they spoke it a certain way and without certain idioms. One of my characters used the expression "a dark horse" and I was preparing to move on, happy with the sentence, when it occurred to me that maybe that phrase wasn't around in 1803. I anxiously checked and found that I was right - it's a racing term that came about in the 1820s and 30s. Granted, few people would notice if I left it in. In fact, it's likely that no one would notice at all. And yet it would not be in keeping with the era I'm portraying, and if anyone did happen to be a horse-racing connoisseur, they would notice the slip. I regretfully cut it and rewrote the sentence.

Minute research isn't always an easy task, even with the internet (although Dictionary.com is an excellent resource). On the other hand, if you want to find the silver lining on the dark cloud, checking the etymology of idioms and slang is an interesting business and provides the searcher with a collection of strange and possibly useful facts. For instance, I now know about when "lunch" came to be used in reference to a midday meal. I also know what mangelwurzel is, and that's not something you get to lord over people everyday. So even paying attention to the little things has its rewards.


  1. Three Cheers for Abigail! Hip-hip! Horay! (I wonder when that was coined). You just made my day :-) I still plan to get a copy of The Soldiers Cross, but this one I absolutely have to read, if only for all your hard work in creating authentic speech.

    Suspension of disbelief is sometimes the best course to take for overcoming the linguistic situation of books, but many authors use it as the "easy way out". I'm so glad you are aware of this. You have the makings of a true linguist ;-).

    I also know how much hard work this is. In my little attempt at a fan fiction I started this year, I was asking the sorts of questions you are, about mid-20th C London. I can imagine how much more difficult it is for an entire novel.

    Keep up your good work, and I really look forward now to seeing some of your finished products.

    God Bless
    Ajjie >'.'<

  2. I loved reading this! It was fascinating, and inspiring. I usually do a bit of research anyway, but this makes me want to go write something that I can really research for!

    Also, I just had to go look up what a mangelwurzel was, and it kind of made me smile.

  3. Ajnos - Your exuberance bowled me over! I almost wish I could have had more research to do language-wise for The Soldier's Cross, but I spent the time researching the historical backdrop. With White Sail's I have to do both, and I'm finding it very interesting. Thanks so much for the enthusiasm!

    Eyebright - Apparently the mangelwurzel reference comes from a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery (by Dorothy Sayers) that Jenny had been reading. I thought it sounds as though it ought to be a pretty yellow flower, but alas, it isn't. I'm glad this post inspired you; I've found that it's a jolly fun kind of research, especially with online dictionaries and the like.

  4. Hand up if you looked up "Mangelwurzel" immediately after reading this post. ;-)

    Abigail, I am SO glad to hear you're taking the time to do this. There's a series of books set in Regency England, and it drives me nuts how they go to what seems an independent Protestant church, of more Baptist than Church of England style, and how things like "Okay" and "Check with me before you ___" run rampant through their speech.
    The stories would've been much better had the authoress done some real research instead of (as it seemed) just watched a few Jane Austen movies. (all her character names were mishmashes of Austen names, too. And this from a widely published authoress!)

    All this to say, THANK YOU.

  5. Phew, that is pretty bad. I'm wondering if you're talking about the same authoress whose most recent publication I read and reviewed...

    Anyhow, thanks for commenting! I'm having a lot of fun in this area of The White Sail's Shaking, especially with the varied backgrounds of my core group of characters. The tensions in the early United States are fascinating to study.

  6. Hmmm... it seems to have eaten my comment.

    I was speaking of Lori Wick. Her modern novels aren't bad (I liked "The Princess"), but she could've done so much better on her historical fiction...


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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