A Word on Word Choice When Writing Historical Fiction (pt. 2)

(Continued from Part 1)

Last week, I wrote about the care I take with word choice in writing

Specifically, the first of three questions that I ask myself in attempting to create a narrative that sounds of a bygone era for historical fiction.

The other two questions are as follows:

2) Does the word, even if historical (or historical enough), call to mind a modern concept?

This may be my own idiosyncratic mind, but the verb “puzzle” always makes me think of a literal puzzle (which certainly didn’t exist in the 13th century) and the confusion I always experience trying to find neighbouring pieces.

Although the origin is unknown, the verb pusle, meaning to “bewilder or confound” (possibly related to the Middle English posen or Middle French poser, i.e. “pose” in modern English, meaning to embarrass or baffle as by a difficult question or problem) is quite old.  It predates puzzle as a noun, “a toy to test one’s ingenuity” by some 220 years (verb 1590s, noun 1814). [1]

Still, it throws me out of a story every time I read a line like “it was a puzzling turn of events”.

Neither will I ever use the word “focus” because it makes me think of cameras, telescopes, microscopes, and other such modern visualization tools.

(Interestingly though, “focus” comes from the Latin focus meaning “hearth/fireplace” or figuratively “home or family”, the hearth being the central gathering place and point of activity for families in ancient times.  In post-classical times, “focus” was apparently taken to mean fire itself.  It’s use in the optical sense came about in the early 1600s, and in the general sense as a center of activity or energy in 1796.) [2]

Then there’s the greatest example of all: corn.  It has another definition besides that of the New World vegetable (Zea mays) that dates back to before the 12th century.

Old World corn

In the pre-colonial Old World, “corn” was the term for any grain with a hard seed—wheat, rye, barley, etc.  This apparently comes from the Latin horn meaning “hard or bony.”

I purposely don’t use “corn” in my WIP, though, despite referring to a stalk of wheat in a particular scene, since it’s use would immediately call to mind corn on the cob.

Not only would this be confusing to modern readers, I’d likely be accused of making a historical howler.

3) Does the word evoke the proper feeling?

This is where things start to get, not complicated per se, but more illusive and intuitive.

I’ve heard about some hardcore historical fiction writers that don’t even neutral sounding words attested later than the year their story takes place.

That is definitely not me.  I do care about the historicity of words, but more than anything I care about producing a certain emotional response in readers.

I particularly found this to be the case when it comes to swear words.

The average person tends to be disproportionately aware of the history and origin of swear words.  Such words are like a time capsule of what was considered taboo or offensive in a given era, and constantly change/become more mainstream as societies evolve.

My WIP isn’t laden with swearing—my current draft only has two instances of profanity.  However, in both cases, I opted to use “modern” swears (that is to say, circa some 200 years later than when my WIP is set) because so too will my readers be modern.

I wanted to evoke the visceral shock and sting of a woman being called the b-word by her father (not used disparagingly until 1400), and the disgust of an obnoxious knight’s willful crudeness in referring to the act of sex as f*cking (first used in writing in the late 1400s but likely used verbally long before that).

To the modern reader, historical swear words are often either comical or confusing.  Instead of f*cking I could have used “swiving”, but to me it lacks the gritty, explosive impact of the f-word.

Plus everyone knows what f*cking means.  “Swiving”, were it used sans sufficient context?  Not so much.

While in no way opposed to sending readers to their dictionary, there is a proper time and place for that.  The last thing I want is to lessen the inherent tension and conflict in a curse by forcing to reader to pause and wonder “what (the f*ck) does that mean?”


[1] [2] – I actually wrote this post late last year and at the time these facts were found on Dictionary.com under each word’s respective entry.  They are not there anymore but I’ve left them in the post for interest.  They may or may not still be true.

(Image source #1 and #2)

2 thoughts on “A Word on Word Choice When Writing Historical Fiction (pt. 2)

  1. Your research is amazing Janna and I don’t think much slips by you. I’m just pondering though if too many readers are waiting to pounce. I’ve read a couple of nice historical novels recently (1) The Coffin Path, Katherine Clements, c17th and (2) The Captive Princess, JP Reedman, c12th. They are very readable and well-paced and not once did I stop to worry about the possible anachronisms (if there were any).

    I must confess though that I was paranoid when writing my own Jersey-based novels set between 1935 – 1953. I took a lot of time to ‘get it right’ in case anyone ever pulled me up on anything. And I’m presently reading a Jersey Occupation (1940 – 45) novel and find myself shamefully eager to spot any historical inaccuracies.


    • I don’t imagine the average reader is ready to pounce, or even the forgiving history buff who’s more so interested in enjoying a good story. But I do write first and foremost for myself and sometimes certain words just feel wrong in the text, to the point of annoying me.

      I have a fairly large vocabulary (itself both a blessing and a curse) so if a given word isn’t flowing well I can usually come up with a number of alternatives before even needing to consult a thesaurus. Meanwhile as you yourself have experienced, when a reader is well-versed in the time period, they may be less accepting of inaccuracies.


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