Between the Lines: Word Search in History #research #wordplay #amwriting

I was talking with a friend about my love of word play, including checking on the etymology of words in my stories to make sure they are not anachronisms for my characters. See, when writing in close point of view, either first or third person, the characters thoughts and speech must adhere to the language in use at the time period of the story. For example, words like mesmerize or trampoline were unknown in the 18th century, the time of my historical romance series.

This discussion reminded me of when I was researching the history of the bells of St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina, for Emily’s Vow. During my reading, I came across the fact that the bells had been taken down and shipped to England as war prizes by the British in October 1782 (which was a story problem I had to correct, by the way). But also that the bells were returned the following fall on a ship that also carried two thoroughbred horses. Nothing too unusual about that fact, right? Except! The word thoroughbred was used to refer to a person with good breeding up until 1796, when it was then applied to horses. My story takes place in 1782, so while my historical reference on the history of the bells could use that word, I could not include it in any of my stories set in this time period.

FireproofpicWhat to do? How did people of the day refer to what we know today as Thoroughbreds? I needed to see the newspaper account from 1783 to find out what terminology the contemporary writer used. So while I was in Charleston, hubby and I visited the Fireproof Building that houses The South Carolina Historical Society. Armed with the citation of the exact newspaper publication information, the wonderful librarians there helped me locate the article. My heart raced with anticipation as I scanned the column of text. The search for a tidbit of history such as this is thrilling to me, which is why I write historicals.


The Darley Arabian – Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Finally, I found the sentence referring to “thorough bred horses.” Two words! Awesome! That meant I could use the 1782 term and modern readers would still understand the meaning. Ultimately, the reader’s enjoyment of the story outweighs other considerations, but if I can use the language of the day that my character would use, all the better.


What do you think? Does it matter how authentic the language is as long as the story is entertaining? Or do you prefer to experience the subtle distinctions in time and place that language can create?

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and opinions!


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