What Doth it Profit Thee? Building Historical Vocabulary

If you’re like me, you spend the whole day talking. Sometimes, when the Fates smile, I’m talking with my keyboard, and what I have to say requires access to a time traveler, for I am a historical writer. All fiction has a unique set of challenges, but I find the creation of believable period language the most overlooked aspect of the historical novel. Since we don’t know what people sounded like for most of recorded history, we as writers need to extract information from written documents. The task becomes the equivalent of a linguistic treasure hunt, and I love it. However, for those still struggling, here are some of my tips for creating great historical prose.

Read! I know everyone tells new writers this, but it’s true. However, what you read matters. So stop reading other writer’s historical novels, and read nonfiction written during your research era, preferably in the original language. These are what historians call primary sources.

Look for letters, diaries, newspapers, birth records, political treatise, epitaphs, or even instructional materials. Period materials offer amazing information not only about language, but also about popular beliefs. You can find them on everything from the correct placement of medical leeches, to the menu of a Roman feast. Doesn’t everyone love a tasty stuffed dormouse drenched in garum? With an authentic vocabulary, you can write credible sounding prose for any time in history.

While you read, collect like a bling crazed magpie. I like to use my ereader’s highlight function to help me keep track of new terms; and the note function to record ideas on how to use them in my work. Once I finish reading, I transfer the information into my word bank, essentially a large spreadsheet. I record the source, author, year of the publication, and any other pertinent details. Remember to study the rhythm of the language. If you can capture the flavor of the era, you can sail through those instances when you must omit the correct historical term for clarity. However, avoid substituting modern slang at all cost, one wrong word and you’ve risked tossing all your clever world building, plot development and original characters right into the privy (loo, commode, head, water closet.) Get the picture?

My last tips will help you avoid some common mistakes.

  • Resist falling in love with one historical word. Constantly beating readers over the head with forsooth gets annoying.
  • Never assume you know the meaning of a word. Language is always changing; words can make a complete reversal in meaning over time. Terrific is a perfect example, it’s derived from the same root as the word terrifying. It does not mean wonderful during many eras.
  • Don’t overuse formality. Archaic language sounds stilted to modern readers, so save heavier moments for effect, and to convey a high level of primness, or decorum.
  • Lastly, don’t forget class and gender. Even with historical fantasy, you need to understand these roles, and use language to give class interactions authenticity. From Monarchy’s to urchins, they all must receive a vocabulary that fits their station.

I know it’s difficult to get historical language right, but vocabulary deserves the same attention to detail as the description of a Medieval castle, or a Renaissance ball gown. We, as writers, can elevate our novels to the next level through the creation of vibrant period voices, and I believe literary agents and readers will thank us for our efforts.

Up Next from Robin … You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy: How to use (and not to use) literature to build vocabulary.

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

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