Don’t Say That! Clip-Clop and Horses in #historical #fiction #wordplay #amwriting #amediting #mustread #histfic

I love horses, and one of the reasons I enjoy writing historical fiction is because of the horses used for transportation and friendship. I started riding horses as a kid myself, my oldest brother taking me on my first trail ride when in middle school. I’ve read just about every horse book I could get my hands on, Misty of Chincoteague and Black Beauty my two all-time favorites! When I think of horseback riding, I think of brushing down the horse, then putting the appropriate tack on, and mounting up. All typical terminology for the sport.

So imagine my surprise when I was checking words for Emily’s Vow and realized I couldn’t even use “clip-clop” in my story. Then I found out I couldn’t use Thoroughbred, either. Plus a couple more. So I had to improvise. I had to rise to meet the word choice challenge!

First, let’s talk about the breed Thoroughbred. I mean, I know the line reached back to three stallions from the 17th-18th centuries, and thus the breed name must reach back just as far. Not so. Here’s what the OED has to say:

2. Of a horse: Of pure breed or stock; spec. applied to a race-horse whose pedigree for a given number of generations is recorded in the studbook. Also of a dog, bull, etc.

1796 J. Lawrence Treat. Horses iv. 166 Thorough-bred hacks are the most docile and quiet, and the least liable to shy.    1825 N. H. Smith Breeding for Turf 5 The pedigree of Eclipse affords a singular illustration of the descent of our thorough-bred horses from pure Eastern blood.    1840–70 D. P. Blaine Encycl. Rur. Sports §930 The term thorough-bred, as relating to a horse‥is neither critically nor conventionally definite.    1856 Farmer’s Mag. Jan. 29 There are some men who prefer the cross-bred animal—the best I believe to be between the Hampshire Down and Cotswold; but‥I must give a decided preference to the thorough-bred.    1887 Sir R. H. Roberts In the Shires i. 18 Mounted upon a thoroughbred‥bay mare.

Remember that my A More Perfect Union historical romance series is set in Charleston, South Carolina, during the American Revolution, so late 1770s to 1783. So the line of horses that would ultimately become known as Thoroughbreds were not called that during the time period of my story. So what were they called? A good question without a simple answer. Trust me, I wish it had been a simple answer!

One of my historical references mentioned that a pair of “thoroughbreds” was on a ship from England that landed at Charleston immediately after the fighting ended there in 1782. But the use of the word in that context was by a modern-day historian so didn’t answer my question. On one of my research trips to that wonderful city (if you ever have chance to go, I highly recommend it!) I went to the Historical Society and looked up the specific newspaper reference mentioned in my secondary source. There I found that while they didn’t use “Thoroughbred,” they did use “thorough bred” horses at the time of my stories. That was close enough to present-day lingo that my readers would know exactly what kind of horses I meant, and yet stay true to the time period.

As for clip-clop, let’s take a minute to think about this rather onomatopoeic word. Clip, clop, clip, clop. Isn’t that the sound of a horse walking on a hard surface? We all can hear that, right? Or is it just me? But apparently that’s a relatively recent addition to the OED:

Clip-a-clap, clip-clop

Imitations of sounds of alternating rhythm.

1863 M. Howitt F. Bremer’s Greece II. xvii. 169 Thy slippers make a clip-a-clap.    1884 Anstey Giant’s Robe xxxix, From the streets below came up the constant roll of wheels and clip-clop of hoofs from passing broughams.

Hence {clip-clop} v. intr., (esp. of hoofs) to make such a sound; occas. trans.

1927 H. V. Morton In Search of England iii. 57 The fishermen clip-clopped over the stones in thigh boots.    Ibid. v. 93 The donkeys‥clip-clop up the cobbles.    1947 K. Cameron Sound & Documentary Film i. 10 The characteristic sound of hooves of dray horses clip-clopping along the cobbled street.    1948 D. Welch Voice through Cloud (1950) xxii. 179 [Matron] clip-clopped away, complaining to herself.    1963 R. H. Morrieson Scarecrow (1964) i. 2 In our little town a horse would clip-clop along‥the main street at noonday.    1978 N.Y. Times 30 Mar. c16/2 Slamming a‥door, clipclopping coconut shells and shuffling shoes.

So there I was stuck for several minutes trying to think how to describe the sound of the hooves on the cobblestones in Charleston. The ring of hooves on stone? Or a thudding sound? Both possible. Ultimately, I decided my readers were savvy people who could imagine for themselves the sound of a horse’s hooves walking on a hard surface and left out mentioning it specifically. (You are all that smart, right? Of course you are!)

Other words I wanted to use but the OED dissuaded me from include “tack” to mean the apparatus used to ride a horse (saddle, bridle, etc.); “hoofbeat” which the OED doesn’t list separately but that the online dictionary says was first recorded in 1840-50. And finally in Samantha’s Secret, I wanted to describe the horses as being “ribby” from lack of feed and fodder, but nope. The OED squashed any hope of using that word in any sense in my 18th-century story:

1. Full of ribs; having prominent ribs. Also fig., suggestive of or resembling ribs.

1849 Florist 50 Yellow [dahlia], tipped with white; constant, but ribby.    1851 H. Melville Moby Dick II. xv. 129 In bony, ribby regions of the earth.    1924 C. E. Montague Right Place ix. 122 All sorts of ribby ridges and intercostal hollows dropping down from that spine to the water-line on each side.    1934 T. Wood Cobbers viii. 101 The homesteads, iron roofed and set about with ribby water-butts.    1970 Daily Tel. 7 May 17/1 The fortunes of Courtaulds were founded in Victorian times on black crêpe,‥a ribby material widows and mourners wore.    1977 ‘H. Osborne’ White Poppy xv. 118 The horses‥were miserable creatures, ribby and pathetic.

2. slang. Dirty, shabby; seedy, run-down; unpleasant, nasty.

1936 J. Curtis Gilt Kid 33 Nearby was a little café.‥ Ribby kind of a gaff, but I might as well go in.    1976 P. Alexander Death of Thin-Skinned Animal xx. 207 She lived at the ribby end of Maida Vale.    1977 M. Russell Dial Death i. iv. 28 ‘How are—things?’ ‘Ribby’.

So, I just had to state outright that the ribs showed on the horses, rather than using it as an adjective. Some would argue that avoiding adjectives and adverbs is a good thing, but it also adds more words to the sentence. Sometimes it’s cleaner to employ a helpful descriptor.

All in all, with each rabbit hole of word sleuthing I’ve gone down, I’ve learned a little more about how technology and perception have changed over time. We’ve just dipped our toes, so to speak, into this topic with more fun to come.

Next time I’ll look at a few playground types of activities we take for granted today that couldn’t happen several centuries ago.


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Emily's Vow Finalist SealEmily Sullivan’s greatest fear is dying in childbirth, as did her twin sister and their mother. Despite her half-hearted protests, her father insists Frank Thomson is the perfect man for both her protection from the vengeful British and as a husband. Frank always loved Emily despite her refusal to return his affections. A patriot spy posing as a loyalist officer, when Frank learns Emily’s been imprisoned for her father’s privateering, he risks his own neck to free his love.

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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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Don’t Say That – Intro to a Romp about Word Choices in Historical Fiction #histfic #amwriting #amreading #amediting

Words have power. No matter where or how they are used, the images and meanings combine to tell a story, real life or imagined. As a 21st-century storyteller, I choose my words with care. Depending on whether I’m writing a story set in the present or the past, those choices will affect how my readers interpret my tale. Words create the setting, the emotion, the motivation, and most of all the overall atmosphere of the story.

Years ago, I attended a workshop on writing historical fiction at the Historical Novel Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. A discussion arose about using words that didn’t exist in the time period of the story. Since stories today are told most often in either close third person point of view (e.g., “His pulse throbbed in his ears, making it difficult to hear) or in first person (e.g., My pulse throbbed in my ears so I could barely hear above the noise”), this is a real concern in order to create authentic characters and settings. In particular, writers of historical fiction shouldn’t use words invented after the time period because they are essentially anachronisms for the character. I agreed and vowed to ensure that I didn’t use any words that hadn’t come about until after the era of my stories. At the time, I was working on my A More Perfect Union historical romance series set in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1782-83, the ending years of the American Revolution.

AMPU Covers-4Let me say now, I had no idea what a challenge I had presented to myself. Despite my best efforts, I probably missed one or two here and there. What I want to share with you all, as readers and perhaps as fellow historical writers, are my thoughts on the words and their usage. Also about historical storytelling for a modern day audience. I have created a list of words to search on for each story – it’s 7 pages long, single spaced. I share it with my editor both for her use and to help me locate and replace “offending” terms.

I mentioned this list to another group of contemporary fiction authors and they seemed enthralled (read, horrified) that it was even something historical fiction authors had to think about. After all, we’re telling stories to modern readers, right? Why did it matter? After I explained the reasoning they wanted to know more. So that was the inspiration for this series of posts.

Over the next few months, I plan to share what I think of as “conceptual” words that I discovered I couldn’t include in my 18th-century stories. These are words that are based on technologies and concepts that had yet to be invented or become common in written language. They also represent an evolution in the language (spellings and such) over the centuries. Some of these words will likely surprise a modern reader. They surprised me! For example, I had no idea I couldn’t use “highlight” or “background,” for reasons I’ll explain later. I’ll rely on the history of the word usage from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)  to explain why I chose a different word and what the alternatives were. All with a certain self-deprecating humor, I hope! It’s rather eye-opening and humbling to realize how lazy I had become in choosing words. It’s easier to reuse the same words rather than select the exact word but one of the times. The hunt for the perfect word to convey both the idea and also the 18th-century atmosphere without losing my sweet little mind, in other words. (Pun intended!)

For those of you who don’t know my background, here’s my bio and then I’ll elaborate a little on my education and experience.

BettyBolteAward-winning author Betty Bolté writes both historical and contemporary stories featuring strong, loving women and brave, compassionate men. No matter whether the stories are set in the past or the present, she loves to include a touch of the paranormal. In addition to her romantic fiction, she’s the author of several nonfiction books and earned a Master’s in English in 2008. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, the Historical Novel Society, the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and the Authors Guild.

I’ve been writing and editing professionally since the 1990s, including essays, newspaper articles and a column for a small town paper in Indiana, and articles for national magazines. My day job was working as a technical writer and editor for corporations and for NASA, as well as editing nonfiction books on a freelance basis. All along I’ve written fiction, mainly romances, and I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Some of my favorite authors are Elswyth Thane, LaVyrle Spencer, James Michener, and Anna Sewell. That is not an exhaustive list by any means! I know something about writing to an audience and delivering the message in a way the reader/receiver can understand it most readily. To add a layer of complexity with needing to stay true to words and concepts relevant to the characters in a story set in the distant past was a new challenge, but one I picked up with a sense of purpose. Until I realized just how big a challenge it would prove to be! Then it became a juggle to find a happy medium between historic authenticity and good storytelling for a modern day reader. Let’s see how well I did, shall we?

I hope you’ll enjoy this little foray into the history of words and how I worked through the challenge of sticking with historically accurate language to tell a 21st-century reader an authentic 18th-century tale to the best of my abilities.

Off we go… Next week I’ll begin with the ever-popular “mesmerize”… See you then!


P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I only send out when there is news to share. News like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers. Thanks and happy reading!

Visit my Website for more on my books and upcoming events.