By Bonnie Stanard
When Shakespeare, in his play Julius Caesar, had Cassius say “The clock has stricken three,” he committed a faux pas which is so common among historical fiction writers a word has been invented to describe it—anachronism. The clock is the anachronism, for no clocks existed in Caesar’s day.
Recently I read the antebellum novel Jacob’s Ladder by Donald McCaig in which a character orders a sandwich in a tavern. Though the word sandwich dates back to 1762 in England, it doesn’t appear in antebellum diaries and cookbooks I’ve researched. From that misstep by the author, I read the story with an eye of mistrust (which was compounded with his reference to a “rubber tarp,” for rubber wasn’t in common usage at the time).
The writer’s challenge is to avoid not only anachronisms but also a modern English tenor of speech, in other words try to be true to the history and language of the time. An example of a novel that takes place in history but reads like a modern story is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Though you’re supposed to believe you’re in 16th Century England, the modern sound of the language transports you to the 21st Century.
In writing of slaves and their owners in the South in 1857, I have compiled my own lexicon of white and slave idioms which I’ve taken from diaries and slave narratives. I’ve found this useful in writing not only dialogue but the narrative as well.
Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain uses language effectively to put the reader in the antebellum South and to bring the characters alive in their time. If you open this book to any page and read, you will guess from the language that it is a 19th Century story set in the South, even if you know nothing about the book. If only I can capture that sense in my manuscript.
There are 19th century words which hardly anybody has heard of today, some because an entity no longer exists—e.g. calabash (vessel made of gourd shell) or banyun (slip-like dress) or osnaburg (coarse material). Others disappear because usage has changed—e.g. counterpane has become quilt; chilblain became sore; and snood, hairnet.
If I’m in doubt about a word, I look it up in the Merriman-Webster dictionary (CD copy) to check on the date it was introduced into the English language. I have found that some words dated earlier by Merriman-Webster don’t appear in 19th Century diaries, words such as diaper, moonshine, and toddler. The Merriman-Webster dates would be even better if the dictionary provided the original definition, for many contemporary words date back centuries, but mean something entirely different now.
I’ve tried to avoid even questionable words, some of which I really miss. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to talk about meals without using the word left-overs (introduced in 1891). Pregnancy is mentioned by antebellum doctors, but lay persons described the condition in veiled tones such as confinement, lying-in, or a delicate condition. Teenager dates from 1921 and I wish it had come into our language much earlier. And if one of my characters broke his wrist watch, the reader could justifiably mistrust me as a writer of historical fiction.