Sparking a controversy

My friend and fellow writer, Liz Harris whose book The Road Back is out later this year, has recently started blogging Welcome to my World

In her last post, she asked for help from fellow authors. It’s such a good question, I’d like to ask something similar. She’d introduced some well-researched period vocabulary in her new novel, but some critique group members had suggested they were too obscure and she should substitute something more generic. So she asked her blog readers for their opinion.

I and thirty-thousand others urged her to leave them in.

These words, such as cuirasse, buckler, poke bonnet, castrum, stanchion, frigidarium, photon torpedo, palla, goose grease, etc. are what give our books their unique flavour.

As a reader, do unknown words put you off or intrigue you? Would you rather have an easy, grey novel or do you enjoy learning as you read?




14 comments to Sparking a controversy with period words

  • I was delighted with the help I received, Alison. So many people – you, included – took the time and trouble to answer my call for help, and I’m eternally grateful to you and to everyone else.

    The words I picked out for discussion – words for which I’d been pulled up in my critique group – came from early in my current work in progress, and I knew that it was very important to get it right at this stage, and to be confident about what I was writing in the future.

    The overwhelming advice was to retain the period words. This is very much what I wanted to hear. There seems little point in finding out historical details, if you aren’t then able to use them.

    Obviously, though, the period words should be used in such a way as to enhance the reading experience by bringing the background alive, and not in such a way that they confuse the reader and seem to be there solely to show off a depth of research.

    Thank you for this blog posting, Alison.

    Liz X

  • Alison

    My pleasure, Liz, in helping where I could. Sometimes, we can get a “crise de confiance” when we hear others’ opinions, especially if we respect the people giving them. But in the end, it’s we who are the writers, they’re our stories.

    Besides, when I’m reading, I love the weird stuff!

  • I’m reading Florence and Giles at the moment by John Harding. The narrative voice, if you’ve not read it, is peppered with newly fabricated but perfectly understandable words. I love it. It’s playful and irreverent and definitely not grey. Bring on the goose grease.

  • Alison

    Yay for goose grease!
    I’ve just bought F&G and shall enjoy that. As a linguist, I love messing about with words.

    On a more serious note, just one or two words set the time and place, change the scene, give an insight into the character and/or jolt the reader – all of which is good.

  • Cat

    I love words and love learning new words. I like coming across new words which fit the context of the story. Sometimes they are the only words which will do.
    I do think they need to be used in auch a way that the reader can understand them without resorting to a dictionary but surely one of the roles of the writer is to introduce new ideas and language to the reader?

  • Alison

    Yes, indeed. We need to entertain, amuse, provoke, intrigue, challenge and open doors for the reader.

    Quite a task! But I think all this has to be done skilfully but still positively. Whoever said writing was easy?

  • Writing the novel has been so much easier now that I know that I can be true to the period, without readers being put off.

    Obviously, I’d make sure that the text clarified anything genuinely obscure that might cause confusion, or I’d omit it, but I hope that the period-perfect vocabulary helps the reader to feel as if they’re in Wyoming in 1887.

    Otherwise, what’s the point of writing a historical novel?

    Liz X

  • Alison

    Exactly! I’ve just finished Helen Hollick’s Sea Witch and I don’t know one sail or piece of rope from another, but it made the period atmosphere so much richer and denser when she used the correct, detailed terms. She included a sketch of a sailing ship and a glossary in the back for those who wanted to know more.

    But it didn’t interfere with the narrative and I can now name two sails. *preens*

  • Although not a regular reader of historical fiction, I’m definitely in the ‘leave them in’ camp. Although sometimes challenging, the language of the past is surely one of its most interesting aspects?
    I enjoy learning new words through reading (how else did we do it in childhood?), as long as they’re not there simply as a way for the writer to show off his/her erudition. Being able to look up the meaning of a word immediately is another advantage of reading with a Kindle. Although I’m not sure if they’re programmed to cope with words like frigidarium and palla.

  • Liz – I think I missed that blog post (I’ll see if I can find it) Alison – thank you for those lovely words about Sea Witch. I totally agree with all that has been said above – what is the point in doing all the research and trying to get a novel to sound realistic if genuine words are then left out?
    Isn’t that being a tad patronising to the intelligence of readers?

    For my Sea Witch Voyages (as you so kindly mentioned them Alison I’ll use nautical examples 🙂
    It would have made an entire nonsense of portraying my main character, Jesamiah Acorne, as a knowledgeable, capable sea captain if he didn’t use the correct and appropriate language. ‘Warp’ a ship is the correct term, the non-nautical would be ‘pull’ a ship. No Sailor would use ‘pull’! Hawser is another one. ‘The crew heaved at the hawser’ or ‘the crew heaved at the thick rope’? The first is correct – the second just sounds as if I don’t know what I’m talking about!

    As writers – especially self published writers – we get enough flak (can I use that word? Is it familiar enough? LOL) about our books being not as good as mainstream etc, so we make extra effort to write well, to produce our books to a high standard – and to to show that we DO know our subject!

    And as a few people above have said, one of the delights of reading a good book is to expand knowledge. Discovering a new word is part of the pleasure of reading!

  • Alison

    Janet – good point about being able to look up words on Kindle. Yes, palla and frigidarium are a bit abstruse, but this is where context comes in.

    Here’s an extract illustrating where palla is used:
    ‘Great Nonna says I’ll have a long tunic and palla for the family day and must behave myself with grace and decorum. What’s decorum?’

    So you can see it’s something to wear… Your choice to look it up or carry on with the story.

  • Alison

    Helen – thanks for your comprehensive comment. I recommend your books to anybody reading this blog.

    All writers have a duty to be accurate about their setting, whether historical or geographical, real or imagined. Sometimes you have to spend an hour getting two words right. This reminds me of when I was a full-time translator!

    The main thing is to be plausible and words are our big weapon in this, whether they’re describing clothes, buildings, plants, games, farming, markets, ships or whatever.

    Perhaps I’ll launch a competition for the most obscure word or expression used to set the story. 😉

  • LOL Alison – what a good idea! I have had e-mails from readers (US readers, I’m afraid) challenging me on some words I’ve used, I think this stems from the difference between US English and English English.

    One that sticks in my mind is a very irate e-mail from a lady from the US who complained that I was a rubbish writer because I mentioned feeding corn to horses. “Corn” she said scathingly “comes from America. America was not discovered until the 15th Century, so how could your 6th century characters feed their horses corn!”

    My polite answer: “Corn-fed is an English term for feeding horses on cereal crops, i.e. oats and barley. A ‘corn fed’ horse is a horse that is owned by someone who can feed it more than hay and grass, and indicates that the horse is valuable and fit. All racehorses, for instance, are corn fed.”

    What annoyed me, she never replied to apologise. 🙂

  • Alison

    Ah, the lovely times we can have with British and American English and with all the dialects and variations of both these standards. You only have to read Florence and Giles.

    My heroine was brought up in the US, in a different reality. I play around with linguistic shifts and registers on purpose, something that readers may consider mischevious, playful or plain silly. But this is only to add to the alternate history framework the thriller is set in; it stays plausible (I hope!) while slightly jarring. But it’s all part of the setting.
    This is something J D Robb does wonderfully in her Eve Dallas stories.