Monday, September 28, 2009

Word Choice and Slang

One of the bigger problems I have with writing semi-period pieces (i.e. Steampunk set at a particular societal level) is that I have to find slang words that fit the story. Things like the word "Hey!" and "Oi!" might not work as exclamations to get someone's attention because they sound too modern.

So I end up trolling the dictionary for words that are at least as old as the time period my stories roughly take place in. With CALLARION AT NIGHT, that means going for Victorian England. With SON OF MAGIC (my completed MS), I have to aim for either creating my own words or using ones that have etymologies at least back to the 14th Century. That way I can be certain of the word not pulling people out of the story.

This can be crazy-making sometimes, especially when my crit group finds a word and says "That's too modern." And then I go back to the drawing board (mind you, I adore my critique group -- they're a talented bunch that have laser-guided eyesight for each class of my traditional errors. And they put up with me taking the proverbial red pen to their works. So I'm happy.).

I know I'm not the only one who has this problem (Gary, I'm looking at you), but I'm curious about how other writers of historical fiction/fantasy deal with the word choice issue.


L. T. Host said...


Oh, wait, was that too modern? ;)

I know what you mean. My new WIP is in the deep (and I do mean DEEP) South, and it hurts to write my dialogue at times, but what other choice do I have? My characters certainly won't be speaking in the King's English, ya know?

Natalie said...

Yeah, that's a good reason to write contemporary fiction. It's hard enough to write a book without having to stress about what words you can and can't use. Still I love reading historical fiction so I'm glad some writers take the time research word usage :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

My characters are all ancient Egyptians and I find it's hardest to be accurate and not modern when they need to cuss. Granted, that's not very often, but occasionally you need a good expletive. I usually fall back on something tied to the gods- "Amun's balls" or "For the love of Hathor."

I've always wanted to write something contemporary so I could use contemporary metaphors. It just won't work to have Hatshepsut musing about how one of her servants smells like a Twinkie or how her daughter is as squirrelly as a Slinky on crack. :)

scott g.f.bailey said...

My last book was set around 1600, so I read a lot of writing from that period to pick up the language. My next book is set in 1749 in Colonial America, so I'm reading a bunch of stuff written then. Letters to family members are a good source of workaday speech, as are plays and other things. Even so, a lot of it gets normalized and made into a hybrid of current-day speaking and period speech so that it's intelligible to modern readers. Some common expressions from 1598, for example, now mean their exact opposite. The profanity from 1749 is very colorful, which I'll enjoy.

Matthew Delman said...


I love the profanity from Victorian and Elizabethan England. So much more satisfying to call someone a "pox-ridden hollow-headed bugbear" than to simply call them a jerk.

I've been debating writing a strict historical fiction set in 1890s Salem, for which I'll probably peruse the collection of papers at the Peabody Essex Museum (love that place).

Matthew Delman said...

Also, Stephanie ... I'm curious as to what you think a Twinkie smells like.