When a Word

On February 3, 2010 Inkquisitive wrote, I noticed that in Ella Enchanted your characters’ vocabulary isn’t as flowery as what we might find in, say, Shakespeare. I am writing a book for young readers and it is set in a small, fictional kingdom. I tend to think of kingdoms as “way back when” because the monarchy system has fallen out of vogue. So I see my book as a (sort of) period piece and I want the vernacular to reflect that and be believable. However, if this is really going to be a kids’ book, how do I get that “not this day and age” feel without going over the kiddos’ heads? How did you handle this/what was your rationale in Ella?

I used the word wench in Ella Enchanted and Fairest, but I’ve abandoned it, possibly because one of my teachers didn’t like it, possibly because it has a bit of a fake Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe feel to it.  She didn’t like lass either, felt it sounded Scottish.  Lately I’ve substituted girl.  Simple.  Timeless.

Timeless is what I’m going for in my fantasies.  Nobody is going to say LOL or even laugh out loud, dude.  Even the phrase going for sounds too modern in my mind’s ear, although the expression may have been around in Chaucer’s day.

Timeless doesn’t mean formal.  I’m copacetic (not a word I would use in a fantasy fairy tale) with short sentences and even sentence fragments.  I want my characters to feel real, to have thoughts that we can understand today, although most people in actual distant history may not have had inner lives much like ours.  I was particularly aware of this when I wrote Ever, which is set in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia.  I did a fair amount of research, and the lives of people then were vastly different from ours.  If you or I could time travel back then and were imbued with the language, we would still be likely to misunderstand events, actions, meaning, intention at every turn.  Mesopotamian medicine, for example, makes clear that ancient Mesopotamians lacked a modern notion of causality.  On the other hand, they were marvelous mathematicians.

Now take a deep breath and prepare to enter the wonderful world of word geeks.  Some of you may already live here.  I invite all of you to pitch a tent.

When a word seems too modern for a middle ages sort of world, I look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which is expensive but which might be in your local library.  The OED is the authority on etymology, the history of a word.  It provides the first-known written appearance of the word and a selection of later appearances – for each meaning of the word.  I just looked up the word blue and was astonished at all the subtleties of meaning.  Blue as a color first showed up in writing in 1300.  Blue in the sense of feeling unhappy, to my surprise, goes all the way back to 1550.

In an age of general illiteracy, a word may have been used long before anyone wrote it down.  Today, on the other hand, a word could appear in print before anyone spoke it.

I cannot find a really old word for funny.  Ha-ha funny (as opposed to peculiar funny) dates from 1756.  The earliest synonyms for funny began to be used in the sixteenth century, which isn’t yesterday but isn’t medieval either.  I’m sure people had senses of humor then, but whatever they called it isn’t in use anymore, or I missed it.  Of course I use the word funny, and any of the others, because they don’t ring new in my ears.

The OED has come out with a thesaurus, which I’m salivating over, but it’s not in CD form yet.  It’s in two huge volumes, and I’d guess the print is as tiny as bacteria.

If you don’t have easy access to the OED, your ordinary paper dictionary won’t have space for etymology, but there are pretty good free online alternatives.  This site is very good:  http://dictionary.reference.com/.  Once you’re there, ignore the ad and type in the word you’re interested in and you’ll get to a new screen with the definitions.  Below them you’ll find word origins for various meanings of the word.  There’s also this online etymology dictionary:  http://www.etymonline.com/, which doesn’t have every word but is still helpful.

Please don’t think I check the age of every word I use.  I only look when a word feels too recent.  Sometimes I’m right.  Often I’m wrong and astonished.

As far as reading level goes, I don’t worry much about that.  We are doing kids a kindness when we introduce unfamiliar words.  As a child my vocabulary grew through reading (still does).  If I came across a word I didn’t know, I asked a parent or looked it up or, most often, guessed at the meaning through context.  By the time I’d seem a hard word several times in different books I’d sussed out a working meaning.

Of course you don’t want your writing to be impenetrable, so don’t pack your sentences with abstruse, recondite, cryptic, esoteric morphemes!  (I had to go to the dictionary for some of those.)  Anyway, the excitement in a story is more important than vocabulary level.  If your story has hooked your reader, he will persevere even if you lob a few morphemes his way.  Ella Enchanted was recommended as a book for reluctant readers despite its sometimes tough vocabulary.

You also don’t want to throw in anachronistic (not of the time) technology.  Obviously no cell phones in the middle ages.  Messengers undoubtedly, but what else?  For example, when did people start to use carrier pigeons?  I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure I could find out online in a minute or two.

There are daily-life books that cover just about every period.  For my mystery novel, I primarily used three sources:  Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies;  Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman; Castle by David Macaulay, a kids’ book and the best of the three in its limited topic, the construction and architecture of a thirteenth century castle.  All of these are fine (if not fascinating) for readers from upper elementary on up.  Anything I couldn’t find in my books I supplemented with online searches.  And, since I was writing fantasy and not historical fiction, I felt free to invent when I couldn’t discover a fact or when the fact didn’t please me or suit the story.  Still, it is quite wonderful to have enough of a sense of a long-ago place to be able to imagine dressing for the day, walking down a street, entering a house, shopping at a market.

Here’s a prompt:

Without much research, maybe just online sources, write a scene at a meal that includes family and guests.  Include description and dialogue.  The topic of conversation can be love or politics or duty of a child to a parent or anything else.  Write a scene from two or more of the choices below.  You can introduce fantasy elements, but set the scene during these time periods:

• pre-history or the very beginning of written history;

• ancient Egypt;

• a non-Western society before Europeans arrive;

• before the sixteenth century;

• during the late nineteenth century;

• the 1950s;

• today.

Notice how your language changes as you time travel.  Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you're looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?

  2. April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in clothbound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books).

    There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I'm not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! 🙂

  3. I can tell now why the setting of your books ring so true. And the OED sounds really useful.

    I have seen the suggestion that making up slang can be better than using current slang that can date your book. Do you ever make up slang for your characters and how do you do it?

  4. Hi! I just wanted to say thanks one more time for visiting Eastern! Your input and advice were invaluable! I am excited to keep writing and to share!

    PS-I have started a book set in the 1700s in New England. I can't believe how many little things I have to look up! What did their dining room table look like?

  5. Priyanks–Great suggestions for April!
    April–Although I'm not an expert on research, the question is worth a post, so I'm adding it to my list.
    Horsey at Heart–I'm writing in modern English. Anyway, the most important thing is a strong story.
    Erin Edwards–I don't remember making up slang, but that sounds like a fine idea!
    Trish–Thanks for squiring me around! You might get a clue about dining room tables from antique and reproduction furniture stores and even online catalogues.

  6. I am always worried about word choice. I remember in English classes teachers saying write a story about a cowboy and we would have to put in ya'll every ten seconds instead of our usual every twenty seconds. For me time period word choice is harder than a person's dialect (cowboys, English person etc.) Anyway I try not to worry about time period word choice because when I do I find I go way overboard and you would have to be from that time to understand so I usually don't worry about unless there is a problem.

  7. I have a question: while writing your books that are set in first-person, do you sometimes get so caught up in the plot that you lose the character's voice and personality in the telling? I'm writing a story where the narration switches between different characters, and lately I've had so many plot ideas that the characters are beginning to blend together and lose their original flavor. Any suggestions?:)

  8. Great post Gail(I learned many new words)! Will you be heading towards Vancouver anytime soon? I'd love to see you!
    I have two more questions:
    1. Sometimes I find myself forcing a change in a character because I feel, to be a round, dynamic character he or she must change in some way by the end of the story. To what extent should a character change? Are subtle changes like a change of opinion also characteristic of dynamic characters? Or should a character by the end of the story be quite different from what he or she is like in the beginning? Are there any limits? I mean I wouldn't want to /force/ a character to change or change her personality–I rather like their flaws.
    2. Caroline's question reminded me of this. I am writing a story in which I feel most natural using first person narrative for the main character, but it is a plot that requires other characters' sides being told as well. So I go back and forth from first person(protagonist) to third person(other characters). Of course the first person narrating is not in the same passage as the third person as that would be very confusing. I try to alternate between chapters. I haven't actually ever read a book that alternates between first person and third person. But it is essential to my plot that everyone's side of the story be told, and writing first person for my MC feels most natural for me. Now, I do recall you using Mandy's magic book in Ella Enchanted as a means to give us other characters' point of views.

    I would be very grateful if you could shed some light on these issues. 🙂 Thanks!

  9. Inkygirl–Thanks for recommending this blog! I'm working my way through your other recommendations. Very interesting!
    Caroline–It's hard to answer your question without knowing your work. You may be pushing your characters to follow your plot ideas. Try asking them (on paper) if they want or can or feel right about doing the things you're asking of them.
    April–I think the biography is well done. It's weird for there to be a biography about me.
    Sage-in-Socks–Let me try to answer your first question in a post. As for your second, THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood alternates third and first-person points of view. This is NOT a book for children. If you're under high school age, ask your librarian if there are any other examples.

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