Don’t Say That! Make-Believe and other theatrics in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

Let’s play some make-believe, shall we? Oh, but wait! I really wanted to have one of my characters in my A More Perfect Union pretend or make-believe something was true when it was not. But the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)  told me I couldn’t. Really?

  1. Pretence

1811 L. M. Hawkins C’tess & Gertr. (1812) IV. 62, I was drest like Minerva,‥and then the little ones came and worshipped me: ’twas all make-believe, you see.    1811 Morn. Chron. 9 Apr., Her mourning is all make-believe, She’s gay as any linnet.    1818 Lamb Three Friends, Not that she did really grieve It was only make-believe.

So if I couldn’t even have my character make-believe, what other theatrical limitations did I stumble upon? You may be surprised by some of them! I’ll start with one that really gave me pause: backdrop. This to be used as in the sky provided a stunning backdrop to the view of the lake, so something like that. This term comes directly from the theatre as a synonym of backcloth. But note the date associated with it in the OED:

2. Theatr. The painted cloth hung across the back of the stage as the principal part of the scenery. Also transf. and fig.

1886 Cornh. Mag. Oct. 435 They gazed awestruck at the backcloth and the flies.    1926 Spectator 10 July 44/2 Thirty acres or so for a stage and the whole firmament of heaven for a back-cloth. …

Note also that it wasn’t used figuratively until 1926 to mean something behind not an actual cloth used for setting.  So I thought about using “background” instead. On first glance, the OED tells me that it was used in the theatre in 1672 as stage direction and as a part of the stage, essentially. But…when I looked more closely, it wasn’t used in the figurative sense until 1799 or 1824, depending on whether Elvira is being given stage direction or not.

1.a. The ground or surface lying at the back of or behind the chief objects of contemplation, which occupy the foreground. (Formerly, the part of the stage in a theatre remote from the audience.)

1672 Wycherley Love in Wood iii. ii, Ranger retires to the background.    1799 Sheridan Pizarro i. i. (1883) 182 Elvira walks about pensively in the background.    1824 Miss Mitford Village Ser. i. (1863) 109 The low cottage in the back-ground.

Another phrase I enjoy saying is “disappearing act” but unfortunately that didn’t hit the books until 1913 and “façade” in the figurative sense of pretending to be something you’re not, having a false face/front, didn’t until 1845. Again I was left to use a broader set of descriptors or change what I said about the character and his motives or actions.

Which all combines to make writing historical fiction both a challenge and a wordsmithing exercise. I love word games, so I’m up for the challenge!

Next week I’ll look into the “typesetting” related words I had to avoid. Think about what those might be in the meantime!


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SamanthsSecretCOVERMidwife and healer, Samantha McAlester returns from the front lines to find Charles Town under British siege and the town’s new doctor at war with its citizens.

Dr. Trent Cunningham intends to build a hospital staffed solely with educated doctors. What he doesn’t need is a raven-haired charlatan spooning out herbs and false promises to his patients, while tempting him at every turn.

Then a mutual friend develops a mysterious infection. Trenton is stumped. Samantha suspects the cure but knows treatment will expose her long-guarded secret, risking all she holds dear… including Trenton.




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