Historical Language Can Be Electrifying

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

By Mary Robinette Kowal

The goal, with any novel, is to keep the reader engaged in the story. Beyond writing a story that is compelling in the first place, you also have to avoid doing anything that will throw them out of the story. For a novel like Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, one of the additional challenges is the use of language. It is very easy to use the wrong word and make a reader pull to a complete halt.

Like the Viking who says, “Okay.” Or the Victorian heroine who says, “Dude.” Or the Regency heroine who says, “nictate.” It is important that the novel “feel” right to a modern reader, but that notion of “feel” can be fairly difficult to pin down.

So let’s look at some ways language can throw a reader out of a novel.

1. That word didn’t exist then. As much as I would like to be able to use the word “mesmerize” in Glamour in Glass, it doesn’t exist in 1815. It’s coined from a man named Franz Mesmer and although Mesmerism, as a spiritual movement, existed by then the noun had not yet been verbed.

2. That word has changed meaning. Take for instance, the word “skittered.” A seemingly innocuous word, which is often used to represent the sound of leaves blowing across pavement, the sound of insect feet on a wall, or any other tiny, dry sound. In 1815? It meant diarrhea. In Glamour in Glass, I had the sentence “the leaves skittered across the pavement,” which… well.

Or take “leyline” which sounds all old and mysterious, but wasn’t actually proposed as a concept until 1921 and, according to the Oxford English dictionary, the word leyline doesn’t show up until 1972 as the name of a magazine.

3. That word isn’t in use anymore. Sometimes, while seeking historical accuracy, an author will go the other direction and pick a word that is completely accurate but has fallen so out of use that no one knows what it is any more. Take the word “reddingote.” Now this is a word that Austen readers will recognize, but most other readers require an explanation. It’s basically a long coat. When using period words like this, a writer has to decide if the word is worth the extra effort that a reader will have to put in to understand it. Sometimes, it involves adding a descriptive line to define the word you’ve just used. Sometimes it means deciding to not use the word. Sadly, there are no reddingotes in Glamour in Glass.

4. That word sounds too modern. Sometimes a word is completely period correct, but sounds modern. For instance, “electrify.” There is no way I can use that in a novel set in the Regency without tossing my reader from the story, but Jane Austen could and did use the word. Electricity was used for a parlour game in the early 1800s and people would get a thrill out of touching two contacts and getting a little jolt of electricity shooting through them. In the novel Persuasion, Jane Austen writes:

She was quite easy on that head, and consequently full of strength and courage, till for a moment electrified by Mrs Croft’s suddenly saying, “It was you, and not your sister, I find, that my brother had the pleasure of being acquainted with, when he was in this country.

I couldn’t write that, because a modern reader would assume it was a mistake. Remember my example above of the Victorian lady saying “dude?” That’s actually a period correct word. Wacky, huh?

The goal, with all of this, is to use the language as part of building the atmosphere of the story. Language reflects the culture that uses it. By being careful with language, it is possible to create a richer environment, so long as I remember that I am writing for a modern reader.


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