All historical novelists know to avoid the ‘wrong words’ – the little anachronisms that boot us into the wrong century will the speed of a train crash. What I find much, much harder is learning when to avoid the right ones.
You know the ones I mean. The ones that are perfectly, demonstrably, authentically in period – but somehow sound as if they’re not. An astute copy-editor wisely advised me not to use the word ‘scan’ in ‘In the Name of the King’, because its rock-solid pedigree in the 16th century didn’t prevent it from sounding as if it sprang to life with a chunk of technology in the 20th.
|Not what I meant
He was right. Not just because of the terrifying reader who’s so certain I’ve Got It Wrong that he can’t wait to tell the world on Goodreads, but because it creates a ‘blip’ – a moment of surprise that jolts the reader out of the story. Anything’s better than that, so we swallow our pride and our research and consign our historical darlings to the dump.
Sometimes we can find ways round it, but they feel equally counter-intuitive. I have a character in my Crimean series who uses a lot of 19th century London slang, and since much of it sounds screamingly modern I often find myself choosing the oldest versions I can find. ‘Mug’ is a perfectly good 1850s word for the face, but I opted for the equally accurate but archaic ‘phizog’ instead. I only do this in the early chapters when readers are still adjusting to the voice, but it still feels strange to make my world seem more alien and distant than it really was.
|Not what I meant. Though I think I could be persuaded...
Sometimes our innocent immersion in a period leads us to miss even more dangerous interpretations, and I still blush to remember a copy-editor’s polite suggestion that a character’s fast movement from a wall might be better not described as ‘jerked off’.
Sometimes it’s really frustrating. When writing the Battle of the Alma for ‘Into the Valley of Death’, I had to really struggle to avoid the one single phrase that would have described exactly what was happening as the Russians harnessed their cannon to field carriages to draw them from the field. Those two-wheeled carriages were called ‘limbers’ and the correct expression is ‘limbering up’, but I wanted the reader to see a scene like this:
|Russian artillery at reenactment of the Alma (Sergey Kamshylin / Shutterstock.co)
and not something like this:
The BMW i8 plug-in hybrid sports car, unveiled in Frankfurt 2013 – with an engine that produces 231 horsepower.