word craft



As a writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and a for­mer librar­i­an, research has not been dif­fi­cult for me and, in fact, I enjoy it. I also read (and have taught myself) a good bit of his­to­ry. It is easy, then, for me to locate infor­ma­tion and facts. But when set­ting a nov­el in a his­tor­i­cal set­ting the issue always becomes what fact, what way of think­ing, being, and talk­ing, con­tributes to the sto­ry. Sim­ply pro­vid­ing a fact with­out hav­ing it be intrin­si­cal­ly part of the sto­ry, con­verts the sto­ry into a text­book, some­thing I don’t wish to do. 

Because there are many ways to write his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, a sim­ple def­i­n­i­tion is hard to come by. In this con­text, I sug­gest you read: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/defining-the-genre-what-are-the-rules-for-historical-fiction/ 

One of the more intri­cate ques­tions a writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion must deal with is lan­guage. Eng­lish, which has the largest vocab­u­lary of any of the world’s lan­guages, is con­stant­ly evolv­ing, even as it has always absorbed words from oth­er languages—which is why it has such a large dictionary. 

One sim­ple exam­ple; blun­der, has evolved from the Old Norse word, blun­dra, which meant to shut one’s eyes. Even in this one word, you can make sense of the evo­lu­tion of the word from past to present. 

The Canterbury TalesMy New­bery book, Crispin: The Cross of Lead, is set in 14th Cen­tu­ry Eng­land. This is the time of Chaucer, and the Eng­lish that was spo­ken is ref­er­enced as Mid­dle Eng­lish. Here is the way Chaucer’s The Can­ter­bury Tales begins: 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, 
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur 
Of which vertú engen­dred is the flour; 

Aside from the fact that I can’t speak Mid­dle Eng­lish, and strug­gle to bare­ly under­stand it, there was no way I could write the book in the Eng­lish of that day. What I chose to do was learn the stan­dard met­ri­cal form of Eng­lish poet­ry of the day and attempt to repli­cate it so as to give the text a sense, a feel­ing, if you will, of anoth­er way of talk­ing English. 

All this is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the nature of my read­ers, for the most part, mid­dle-school-age young peo­ple. Their vocab­u­lary is—I have lit­tle doubt—often dif­fer­ent from mine. 

That said, I remem­ber a writer of mid­dle-grade fic­tion who once told me he had locat­ed a McDonald’s in his neigh­bor­hood. He often went there short­ly before three-o-clock, took over a booth, and ordered him­self a ham­burg­er and soda. Then he wait­ed for the post-school crowd to swarm in, and then he lis­tened and took notes as to their way of talk­ing, their slang, their new words, their exclamations. 

There are all kinds of research.

One of the ways I deal with this is to have the Oxford Unabridged Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage on my com­put­er. Of enor­mous val­ue is that it con­tains a His­tor­i­cal The­saurus. This allows me to win­now words that were not used in a par­tic­u­lar peri­od of time. When I am writ­ing I often check to see if the word I use was used at the time. 

Thus, I am cur­rent­ly writ­ing a his­tor­i­cal nov­el that takes place in the Amer­i­can West in 1893. In the course of the sto­ry, some­thing impor­tant and unusu­al hap­pens. I have my char­ac­ter say, “Wow!” 

I stopped and checked that word in the His­tor­i­cal The­saurus. When did “Wow!” enter the Eng­lish lit­er­ary world? 

It seems it was in 1513. 


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