April 11, 2011

word choice in historical fiction

I wonder if anyone else obsesses about this sort of thing. I’ve been dutifully working on my steampunk project, writing anywhere from 300 to 1200 words a day, making excellent progress. So far, the plotting before writing has worked out, but I’m only 3773 words in (as of writing this post). Hopefully, the next 80,000—give or take—come just as easy.

I have spent a lot of time between sentences doing research. I want the story to be as authentic as possible, highlighting the innovative technology of the era, keeping true to the political and social standards of the time, and using the language of the time. Dictionary.com has been my best friend through the course of the steampunk project so far. I can look up a word, and the website will tell me what year the word came into common use.

I’m very particular about language with this project. My main character works in a pawn shop in the 1880s. Pawnbrokers had been around for centuries, but the term “pawn shop” didn’t come into circulation until the 1840s. So, luckily, I can use “pawn shop” in my story rather than saying “the pawnbroker’s shop” or the “shop of a pawnbroker”. At one instance, I wanted to call the girl “ballsy”, but when I researched the term, I found out it didn’t come into use until the late 1950s, too late for my particular story. I had to come up with some other way to say it. “Backpack” didn’t come into use until 1914, and it was mainly used in America, so I referred to school bags as “knapsacks” instead. The use of “shot” meaning “exhausted” came into use in the 1930s (i.e. her only chance… shot.), so I had to change that particular phrase to something that would have been said in the late nineteenth century. Both “android” and “automaton” were in use way before the nineteenth century, so they could be used, but not “golem” which didn’t come into use until the final years of the century, or “robot” which didn’t come into use until the 1920s.

Maybe I obsess over it. Everyday readers won’t notice nitpicky things like that. But I feel like I need to keep true to the time if I’m to keep the story authentic. The technology has a bit of flexibility; the story is steampunk after all.

For those of you that write historical fiction, do you avoid anachronistic words? Do you give yourself a little leeway? What sort of research do you do with regards to language, technology, and social norms? Do you research while writing, plotting, or revising?


  1. In a straight fantasy story I wrote a while back ("Accidental Sorcerers," on my blog) the kids said "Chill" and "Geez" toward the beginning. I felt rushed when I was writing it, so didn't fix the anachronisms, but they stand out to me. Nobody mentioned it in the comments, though, so perhaps it didn't matter.

  2. As far as historical or semi-historical stories go, I really appreciate it when authors put in the extra effort to make sure they follow the vernacular for whatever time period they're writing in. I always notice when a non-period word gets thrown in (or at least most of them) and it bothers me. It's like going into a big, shiny office building and seeing people dressed in shorts, sandals, and ratty t-shirts; it just doesn't fit.

    As far as research goes (and I'm talking about all research, not just language) I do it as I write. It slows down my writing process a little but, but it gives me more flexibility and save me the embarrassment of having to go back and rewrite too much.

  3. I think your strategy for researching words is spot on. I've written historical pieces and agonized over word choices. The work is always the better for it.

  4. Thanks for the input guys! I don't feel so nit-picky now. :)

  5. I'm super-anal about word-choice. If it didn't exist at the time--unless it's just a narrator's unobtrusive word--I don't use it. As an avid historical fiction reader, I know it drags me right out of the story when an author uses an anachronism of any kind (but hey, I'm anal). At the same time, I don't go over-the-top with the voice--as much as I love the paragraph-long sentences and convoluted structure of the 18th century, I have a sneaky suspicion most modern readers prefer a pared-down version of it!

  6. I find it somewhat frustrating sometimes, especially since my novel is considered high fantasy. I don't want to use words that are obviously out of place, but at the same time ... how do you replace them? Here's an example: I have a character with heterochromia. It's an important part of who the character is, so I can't just gloss over it by simply saying 'Cade has two-different colored eyes' and leave it be. But the disorder wasn't named and recognized until the 20th century. So yes, Brooke, I know how you feel.