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

Let’s talk about some broad words related to the environment or setting of my 18th-century stories. And I do mean broad because the terms are “atmosphere,” “landscape,” “surroundings,” “low-lying,” and “shoreline.” Pretty broad, wouldn’t you say?

I’ll begin with “atmosphere,” which according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), existed from the 17th century as a word but not in the figurative sense I wanted to use. Nope. It literally meant “the spheroidal gaseous envelope surrounding any of the heavenly bodies.” The actual air and gases. The figurative sense, the one I wanted to use, meaning “surrounding mental or moral element, environment. Also, prevailing psychological climate; pervading tone or mood; characteristic mental or moral environment; fascinating or beguiling associations or effects” didn’t enter English until 1797. Close but, um, no. So I couldn’t say the “atmosphere in the room was tense” but could have said something like “the air crackled with tension” I suppose. At this point, it’s been several years since I first thought to use that word and I don’t remember what I ended up writing instead.

Another surprise was “landscape.” This is another word that existed but in a precise definition related to a painting. The OED says it’s “a picture representing natural inland scenery, as distinguished from a sea picture, a portrait, etc.” In the early 1700s, it could also mean, “A view or prospect of natural inland scenery, such as can be taken in at a glance from one point of view; a piece of country scenery.” But there couldn’t be any landscaping around the house, the usage I recall wanting to employ, until 1886. That’s when it appears in a book on geology to mean “a tract of land with its distinguishing characteristics and features, esp. considered as a product of modifying or shaping processes and agents (usually natural).” And in fact, the use of “landscape” as a verb, didn’t actually become valid until 1927! So I think I probably simply described the setting as having flowering trees or bushes around the foundation and left it at that.

So what about “surroundings”? As in, “she stopped to investigate her surroundings.” Originally, back in the 1400s, a surrounding meant “overflowing, inundation,” according to the OED. By 1775 it also meant “the fact of being around or encompassing.” But the usage I had in mind, “that which surrounds,” and the plural form of “surroundings” to mean “those things which surround a person or thing, or in the midst of which he or it (habitually) is; things around (collectively); environment” didn’t become a thing until 1861. So perhaps when I write a Civil War era story I can use this word.

Okay, so since my A More Perfect Union series is set in and around Charleston, South Carolina, I wanted to describe the “low-lying” areas. Ahem. Not so fast. The OED is rather fuzzy as to when this word came into being, citing it’s usage in 1691 in the following passage: “The low-lying of the Head-springs of..this River.” So that’s the river lying low, not the land in general. So I went over to which pinpoints the origin as 1855-60, meaning “lying near sea level or the ground surface.” So no-go for my Charleston stories. Sigh. That just means I have to be more creative with my word choices, right?

Finally, I wanted the guys to have to confront the “shoreline,” but yet again I was thwarted. The OED defines “shore-line” as “the line where shore and water meet” and cite a passage from 1852 as “The shore-line along the edge of the hilly ridges.” The site claims the origin dates from 1850-55. So rather than argue, with myself or anyone else, I chose to use a different description. Keep it simple, right?

I will say yet again that all my sleuthing as to the origins of words has taught me a bit about the evolution of the English language in general. I believe it’s also made me a better writer because I can employ a wider variety of vocabulary to paint a clearer picture for my readers.

Next time I’ll look at some cooking-related words. Happy reading!


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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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