Don’t Say That! Mesmerize in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Have you ever felt mesmerized by something or someone? Isn’t it an intriguing word to say, one that rolls right off the tongue? I know that was my go-to word when I drafted Emily’s Vow years ago. And yet, it’s not one that should be used in any historical fiction set in a time period prior to the early 1800s. I so wanted to use it but I also want to use words and concepts that my characters would use. Bear with me while I work through this little word choice puzzle. The result not only is enlightening but also makes my stories richer with a variety of vocabulary. Ready? Let’s dive in…

First you need to realize that “mesmerism” is, according to the OED:

The doctrine or system, popularized by Mesmer, according to which a hypnotic state, usually accompanied by insensibility to pain and muscular rigidity, can be induced by an influence (at first known as ‘animal magnetism’) exercised by an operator over the will and nervous system of the patient. b. The process or practice of inducing such hypnotic state; the state so induced. c. The influence supposed to operate. Cf. animal magnetism

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer was an Austrian physician, born in 1734 and died in 1815. He lived in Vienna, Austria, in the mid-18th century. His belief in Animal Magnetism, otherwise known as Mesmerism, became the basis for the eventual development of what we call Hypnosis.

Here’s the tricky part about whether the concept behind a word can be used in my story or not. While Dr. Mesmer lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the verb “mesmerize” did not enter the written English language until 1829, again according to the OED:

trans. a. To subject (a person) to the influence of mesmerism. Also transf. and fig., to fascinate, spellbind.

1829 R. Chenevix in Lond. Med. & Phys. Jrnl. VI. 222, I mesmerised the patient through the door.    1863 A. E. Challice Heroes, etc. Time Louis XVI, II. 77 Dr. Mesmer found it impossible to mesmerize Dr. Franklin.

transf.    1862 H. Aïdé Carr of Carrl. I. 137 Carr would almost have forgotten her existence, had it not been for those eyes which mesmerised him every now and then, in spite of himself.

Since my usage of “mesmerize” would be the figurative sense of fascinate, not the literal,  I couldn’t have my 1780s character be saying or even thinking in such a mindset. Dang it! So I had to come up with alternatives. The OED suggests “fascinate” or “spellbind.” Fascinate entered the English language in the 16th century, so that one is fine. However, spellbind didn’t arrive until 1808, so I couldn’t use that one. “Enthrall” is another possibility, since it also shows in the historical record in the 17th century, 1656 to be exact.

See what I mean about having a variety of words to choose from? Depending on the underlying motifs and themes, enthrall (with its root “thrall” meaning “slave” or “slavery”) may be more appropriate than to spellbind or fascinate (given their relation to witchcraft and magic).

So with just a little word sleuthing, I can hint at other aspects of the plot and character development by literally putting the best word on the page. My go-to word, the one that first popped into my mind when I was drafting the story, didn’t exactly convey the meaning behind the concept I had in mind. Digging a bit deeper gave me better ideas for writing the best story in my power.

Next week I’m going to talk about my surprise when it came to describing horses in the 18th century. Who knew it could be so tricky?


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Elizabeth's HopeThe fight for independence has become personal… Elizabeth Sullivan feared for her brothers, fighting for American freedom; for her father, pretending to be a loyalist; for family and friends, caught between beliefs; but mostly for Jedediah Thomson, the man she loves, who was doing his duty. They’d only begun their courtship when the occupation of Charles Town, South Carolina, trapped her in the city and sent him to fight. She cherished every moment they had together, knowing how swiftly it could be taken away. And that made her willing to risk everything to claim a piece of him forever….


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