Historical Language Can Be Electrifying

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

By Mary Robinette Kowal

The goal, with any novel, is to keep the reader engaged in the story. Beyond writing a story that is compelling in the first place, you also have to avoid doing anything that will throw them out of the story. For a novel like Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, one of the additional challenges is the use of language. It is very easy to use the wrong word and make a reader pull to a complete halt.

Like the Viking who says, “Okay.” Or the Victorian heroine who says, “Dude.” Or the Regency heroine who says, “nictate.” It is important that the novel “feel” right to a modern reader, but that notion of “feel” can be fairly difficult to pin down.

So let’s look at some ways language can throw a reader out of a novel.

1. That word didn’t exist then. As much as I would like to be able to use the word “mesmerize” in Glamour in Glass, it doesn’t exist in 1815. It’s coined from a man named Franz Mesmer and although Mesmerism, as a spiritual movement, existed by then the noun had not yet been verbed.

2. That word has changed meaning. Take for instance, the word “skittered.” A seemingly innocuous word, which is often used to represent the sound of leaves blowing across pavement, the sound of insect feet on a wall, or any other tiny, dry sound. In 1815? It meant diarrhea. In Glamour in Glass, I had the sentence “the leaves skittered across the pavement,” which… well.

Or take “leyline” which sounds all old and mysterious, but wasn’t actually proposed as a concept until 1921 and, according to the Oxford English dictionary, the word leyline doesn’t show up until 1972 as the name of a magazine.

3. That word isn’t in use anymore. Sometimes, while seeking historical accuracy, an author will go the other direction and pick a word that is completely accurate but has fallen so out of use that no one knows what it is any more. Take the word “reddingote.” Now this is a word that Austen readers will recognize, but most other readers require an explanation. It’s basically a long coat. When using period words like this, a writer has to decide if the word is worth the extra effort that a reader will have to put in to understand it. Sometimes, it involves adding a descriptive line to define the word you’ve just used. Sometimes it means deciding to not use the word. Sadly, there are no reddingotes in Glamour in Glass.

4. That word sounds too modern. Sometimes a word is completely period correct, but sounds modern. For instance, “electrify.” There is no way I can use that in a novel set in the Regency without tossing my reader from the story, but Jane Austen could and did use the word. Electricity was used for a parlour game in the early 1800s and people would get a thrill out of touching two contacts and getting a little jolt of electricity shooting through them. In the novel Persuasion, Jane Austen writes:

She was quite easy on that head, and consequently full of strength and courage, till for a moment electrified by Mrs Croft’s suddenly saying, “It was you, and not your sister, I find, that my brother had the pleasure of being acquainted with, when he was in this country.

I couldn’t write that, because a modern reader would assume it was a mistake. Remember my example above of the Victorian lady saying “dude?” That’s actually a period correct word. Wacky, huh?

The goal, with all of this, is to use the language as part of building the atmosphere of the story. Language reflects the culture that uses it. By being careful with language, it is possible to create a richer environment, so long as I remember that I am writing for a modern reader.

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0 thoughts on “Historical Language Can Be Electrifying

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  3. Interesting article. I’m not sure whether or not “dude” and “electrify” should be immediately excised because the sound too “modern.” If used in an appropriate context, instead of being thrown out of a story, the reader may learn something she or he did not know before.

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  6. Other than the “may take the reader out of the story” category, this feels to me like the writer playing head games with him/herself. Consider, for example: what if you were setting the story in 1600? Would you then feel the need to write the entire book in Shakespearean English? How about if you were writing something set in the time of Beowulf? Would you write it in Anglo-Saxon? Of course not! You’re writing for a modern reader, who speaks – and reads – modern English.

    So, your class one I would exclude from the speech of characters, but would feel free to use in narration (unless, of course, the narrator is also supposed to be a person of the time period – see, for example, the narrator of The Great Gatsby).

    Class two I would likely ignore. I’m writing for a modern audience, who is going to understand “skitter” in the modern meaning. If it occurs in character speech, consider it to be part of the same “translation magic” that lets us have Anglo-Saxon characters speak in modern English. Of course, you don’t want to carry things too far, since you want an “authentic” feel… but honestly, expecting every author – and especially every reader – of a period novel to be an expert on the changes in word meanings between the period in question and now seems ridiculous. (Especially since in many cases, drift in meanings is much more subtle, with past and present meaning overlapping, but not being exactly the same.)

    Class three is interesting. I only started reading Regency novels in the last few years, and found myself having to look up quite a few words and phrases — ‘reticule’, ‘the Ton’, ‘banns’, various forms of carriage, ‘the Season’, etc. I could often get the main sense of them from context — for example, it was obvious that ‘the Season’ was when young people were ‘shopping’ for husbands and wives… but when was that? Was it in Spring? Autumn? Was it just something the upper classes did, or was this a universal thing? (And yes, I know the answers to these questions now – but the Regency novels I’ve read haven’t explained anything about the Season beyond the barest basics.)

    So, I don’t really see why ‘reddingote’ would be a problem to include in a novel, when ‘reticule’ gets thrown into Regency novels all the time without explanation.

    Class four is more problematic. I’d probably spend a little effort to avoid such words, but if it seemed to require a lot of circumlocution or to result in wording that worked poorly, I’d go ahead and use them. I might, though, mention in an afterword that they actually were period, to forestall the flood of letters from readers.

    • TS Casey :
      Other than the “may take the reader out of the story” category, this feels to me like the writer playing head games with him/herself.

      Oh, absolutely. And this is not a game that I think everyone needs to play, but it’s one that I find useful and interesting. Language reflects the culture that uses it and vice versa.

      To take your example: a story in 1600? Would I then feel the need to write the entire book in Shakespearean English?
      Well…. no. But people in 1600 didn’t speak Shakespearean English except on stage. I would, however, try to strike a balance between using language that was accessible for a modern reader and language that was period appropriate. It’s not that hard with the 1600s because they are speaking recognizably modern English. What changes are the concepts and the way that they use the language.

      This is different from something set in the time of Beowulf, since Anglo-Saxon is a foreign language. As you say, one is writing for a modern reader, who speaks – and reads – modern English. But Jane Austen was also writing modern English.

      TS Casey :
      …but honestly, expecting every author – and especially every reader – of a period novel to be an expert on the changes in word meanings between the period in question and now seems ridiculous.

      And it is. Fortunately, I don’t argue that.

      As I say at the close: “The goal, with all of this, is to use the language as part of building the atmosphere of the story. Language reflects the culture that uses it. By being careful with language, it is possible to create a richer environment, so long as I remember that I am writing for a modern reader.

  7. I will fling a book against the wall if the wrong time period says “OK”. And that will be the last I ever read of that writer. Yup – it’s a pet peeve.

    The worst example of 1 – or maybe 4 – was the use of “incandescent” in a book set in 16th century Scotland. Best I could find, the word was coined in the mid 1700’s, but it’s so closely related to light bulbs it was ridiculous in context.

    As a modern reader who is not an expert in any other century’s language, I would be perfectly happy with “skittering” – it’s a great word and it conveys to me what you want it to convey. That you know that the word is incorrect for the period indicates good research and understanding of what you’re working with. What I’m not happy with is what I read as a writer’s lack of respect for the time period he’s writing about. To me it screams of laziness – either the research has *not* been done or the writer is too lazy to find another word.

  8. Like the Viking who says, “Okay.” Or the Victorian heroine who says, “Dude.” Or the Regency heroine who says, “nictate.” It is important that the novel “feel” right to a modern reader, but that notion of “feel” can be fairly difficult to pin down.

    Well, Mary, to play Devil’s Advocate, there is an argument, that I don’t necessarily agree with, that a historical fantasy novel could be a work of “translation” and written in colloquial modern English. That might be splitting hairs a bit too fine to suggest Austen’s English is not the English we speak, though. Certainly some of the spelling and other rules of late 18th and early 19th century English are not the same as ours.

  9. Historical novels are set in the past, to be read by modern day readers but…what of the future? Shouldn’t we also be writing for readers many generations to come? How does any author write for people who have not yet been born? I suspect that the only answer to that question is ‘with integrity’.

    To me an historical novel that cuts corners or, -shudder- only pays lip service to that moment in history is not worth reading. I’m sure we’ve all read horrible romance novels where the heroine wears crinolines but only so she can showcase her ‘heaving bosoms’ in front of the dashing love interest. That is writing without integrity. It is also bad writing but I don’t need to point that out.

    When I read historical fiction I have chosen that genre for a reason; I want to be immersed in that time and that place. And because the choice was mine I am quite prepared to work a little, as a reader, in order to fit into that world, at least for a short while. So if a novel is set in the time of Beowulf maybe the dialogue should be in the language of the times. After all, a decent writer can ‘translate’ those words without sounding like someone working for the UN translation service.

    As Mary says ‘Language reflects the culture that uses it. By being careful with language, it is possible to create a richer environment’ … for readers now and those yet to come. That is integrity in writing.

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