A Word on Word Choice When Writing Historical Fiction

As writers, we all naturally pay close attention to the words we use in our prose.

Being a writer of historical fiction has made me even more mindful of word choice.

Like my story settings themselves, the words I use need to create a sense of being in the past.  Or in the very least, they need to not detract from that historical sense for fear of disrupting the reader’s immersion in the story.

I worry about this because I’ve experienced it myself since the fiction I read most tends toward either historical or SFF.

When writing, I thus find myself weighing my word choices against three overriding questions that other histfic or speculative writers might likewise find useful:

1) Does the word obviously describe a concept that wouldn’t yet exist?

My WIP is set in 13th century England which, like the books of my reading preference, boasts pre-Industrial technology and scientific understanding.

In my earliest draft, I was quite careless with my inclusion of modern words.  Nothing so grossly anachronistic as “okay/OK”, which gained notoriety in the 1840 U.S. election campaign of Democrat Martin Van Buren.

But I did use the term “war zone” (first recorded use: 1915-1920) within the first five pages, for which an alpha reader rightly pulled me up.

I’ve since learned my lesson and now realize that a word like “adrenaline” would be similarly out of place.

Adrenaline, the hormone produced in the adrenal glands, was not isolated until 1895.  Yet it’s a word that I see used often in pre-Industrial YA fantasy to describe the main character’s feeling of power and invincibility in action scenes.

One might argue here that, being fantasy, the rules of real-world development needn’t apply.  For me, though, if the story world lacks the basic amenities that would be conducive to such a scientific breakthrough (e.g. chemistry labs, sterilization methods, running water), it really just jars me out of the narrative.

The same goes for the concept of “infection” or “minutes”.  Even though the effects of infection have been observed throughout history, the word itself didn’t gain common use until 1350-1400, which is technically too late for my WIP.

A 13th-century alternative would be something like “rancidity”, “putrefaction”, or “mortification”.

“Minutes” is another tricky one, as are all time-related references in general, including idioms like “wait a minute” or “hold on a second”.

In the 13th century and earlier, the concept of an hour did exist, measured by the time it took a candle to burn down a given length.  However finer divisions of time (minutes and seconds) have no place in a setting lacking modern timekeeping equipment.

All that being said, my use of “obviously” in this question is likewise a deliberate word choice, for reasons I’ll get into in the second half of this post.

To be continued.

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5 thoughts on “A Word on Word Choice When Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I have enough trouble staying in 2005/2006 for my WIP – and being careful with computers, phone systems, and politics.

    The other problem for historical fiction written afterward is that, as you know, some words are actually correct – but ‘feel’ wrong. The use, while correct, may have not been popular – or died off and then came back.

    You can’t argue with a reader (me) that such a word is not an anachronism, and that I’m ignorant – because we’ve already left the story and the necessary ‘suspension of disbelief,’ even if the book hasn’t been thrown against the wall yet. I remember reading that ‘Tiffany’ (or some such) was actually a name used in Regency England (example may be incorrect); but it feels so modern I wouldn’t name a character that in a Regency.

    Etc.

    You are far braver than I am.

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    • Yes, the feel of certain words is definitely a consideration. You are anticipating part 2 of the post!

      And yes, Tiffany is an old name; older than Regency, even. It is a medieval nickname/pet name for Theophania. I was so delighted when I learned this I immediately named a minor character Theophania in my WIP. Although we never hear her being called Tiffany (the MC never speaks or thinks of her by anything other than her title) just so because most people believe it is modern.

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  2. I guess though that you and I wouldn’t actually comprehend a word that was being said if we were to be parachuted back to the c13th. Even 100 years back would be a struggle, especially taking into account regional variations. So I guess you need to write dialogue in modern standard English (of course taking anachronisms into account), as a translator might translate (say) a Norwegian novel into English?

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    • Very true, Roy. I have neither the desire nor the skill to make my prose read like The Canterbury Tales. The best I can do is go for as neutral a rendering of modern English as possible with enough period-specific turns of phrase to create an illusion of historicity.

      Liked by 1 person

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