Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Need for Etymology When Writing Historical Fiction

For those who aren't familiar with the term, etymology is the origin of words. I'm in the midst of judging a contest, and my entries are in the historical category. I love judging, by the way. It gives me a chance to read some stellar works (I've seen some amazing stories and even collected new favorite authors from the contest circuit) and if the work is less-than-stellar, I have the opportunity to provide an author with the chance to improve.Today's post is one of those Public Service Announcements. Don't Let This Happen to You:

Last night, I picked up an entry and began to read. Within the first ten pages, I'd stumbled over four words that didn't seem accurate for the time period. A quick flip to my etymology references confirmed what I suspected: all four phrases were nineteenth century in origin, while the setting of the entry is six hundred years earlier. The editor in me cringed. Four? In ten pages? What else am I going to discover as I dig deeper into the manuscript? Because right there, the author lost me. He or she clearly didn't do the research and I'm now going to consider every phrase that leaps out at me as anachronistic.

Now, of course, I don't expect the dialogue in a modern book (regardless of historical setting) to read like a Shakespearean play, but at the same time, don't use 19th century slang (or even 16th century slang!) in a 13th century story. It takes seconds to look up the origin of a phrase. Those of us who know these things (and readers who flock to the same historical time period over and over do so because they *do* know these things) don't easily forgive that kind of "lazy writing." It makes us wonder, what else did the author screw up? And once that happens, the reader's no longer engaged in the story. 

Some helpful websites that every historical author should have bookmarked: 

The Online Etymology Dictionary
The Big List
Etymylogically Speaking

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