Thinking in Medieval

Yes, yes, I'm still here. We had a lovely new year, we've been to see the new Bond film (yikes! swoon!), we've been to see a dinosaur exhibit, I've been keeping up with my word count, and we're all a little heavier than when we arrive two weeks ago. I'll post more in the the coming week when we return to our regularly scheduled lives -- including a review of the Bond film, which cannot be missed.

In the meantime, here's a post I wrote before I left, saving it for an occassion such as this when blogging is too time consuming to manage whilst on vacation.

I am in the process of making decisions regarding the language I to use for RWS. Frankly, if I used only the vocabulary available in the year 1200, I would produce an unreadable book -- if I managed to write it at all. But the OED is my new best friend as I search for dates when words were first printed.

As an example, I want to say that my heroine's hair became frizzy in the humid air. I discarded frizzy right away because it was first seen in print in 1870. It just sounds modern. Humid (1549) is a little trickier. Adjectival synonyms for humid (air) include damp (1706), wet (1400), moist (1382), and clammy (1635). Because muggy and sultry, two other possibilities, simply do not fit England in autumn, I will go with moist and/or wet, with humid in reserve if I get desperate. As for frizzy, I decided to use curly instead -- oops. 1772. That's almost as bad, whereas curled dates back to 1380.

I have generally decided that, if I cannot think of a synonym, I'm going with anything pre-Shakespearian. Ole' Billy changed the language so profoundly that any word in use before the publication of his plays (and particularly the popularization of his famous phrases) sounds antique. Most pre-Shakespearian words sound High Medieval at worst, and I'll use them without any qualms. And because this is storytelling, not a history of the English language, I have to remind myself that the goal of all this checking is to lend an impression of authenticity, not to prove how entomologically anal I can be. Damp sounds at least as old as humid, so I would not have a problem using it.

The most difficultly I am having has to do with the use of scientific language. The use of acids is integral to my plot. However, Newton coined the word acid in 1727. Dude! The word for acids used in medieval times is spirits, which has taken on considerably different connotations in modern times -- either souls or strong liquor. Other necessary descriptive terms such as reaction (1836), chemistry (1605), and even scientist (1834) are all out. Caustic (1555) and experiment (1382) are old enough but sound modern. Eventually, when I come across these terms in the process of storytelling, I'm going to have to make some sort of compromise choice, which is what I had to do with the German words in Serenade. I think I have another chapter or two to ponder.

So, out with the new and in with the old. I am integrating medieval phrases and terms taken from the Robin Hood ballads and a medieval dictionary JRR Tolkien assembled decades ago -- with some success and some difficulty. I love learning about old phrases, which was why this project appealed to me in part. "As cold as charity" is my new favorite, implying that charity -- the act of giving -- was done so callously and perfunctorily in medieval times as to be a cold act, one worthy of its own simile. But will that come across in the text? I'm going to try, but if betas flag it as a hang-up, my historian brain takes a backseat and I'll change it.

And don't get me started about ye, thee, and thou. Oh dear...

My question for you is this: how much history is enough? I think sci-fi authors must confront this issue, too, with hard vs. soft sci-fi. And I'm not talking about "just tell a good story" -- I take that as a given. If you are a fan of historical fiction, where is your line between ambiance (Lisa Kleypas) and hard research (Gore Vidal)? What are your favorite examples of what works and what does not?


Tess said...

What an interesting way to think about language! What you're attempting is a kind of translation. On one hand, you don't want ultramodern words jarring the readers out of the setting; on the other hand, "acids" is a word whose meaning we take for granted, just as people of the time would have taken for granted "spirits." You have the problem of bridging the two worlds--writing in our modern language, but giving a strong sense of these people's lives and the way they thought. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I wrestled with the same thing when I was writing historicals. I think I did a fair job of avoiding anachronism without being tedious. I guess I don't mind "costume dramas" but sometimes certain things really drag me out of the story.

For instance, in Robin Schone books, she uses the word clitoris like a bazillion times. The etymology of the word says its origin was around 1610(ish) but it's of German extraction, so would it really be a commonly known word for, say, a half-Arab bastard duke or something? Maybe it would. Maybe her research is rock solid. But if it drags me out of the story to wonder that, is it the best word choice?

Anyhow, I digress.

As for hard sci-fi vs soft, I prefer characterization to hard science and most writers can't bridge the two. Jack McDevitt does a fair job of it with his Chindi books but that's the exception rather than the rule. Usually they're just too dry and I nod off while they're going on about quarks.

Anonymous said...

You have to balance readability with giving a flavour of the time.

My editor said -- she would far rather the work was readible and the story carried people along. Speech patterns have changed so much even in the past 100 years. Think authentic rather than strictly accurate. The vast majority of people reading the story will not be bother to look up a word.
Avoid Tis and twas as well.

That said -- I do like this dictionary.

lindseysoda said...

Wow, that's a fascinating conundrum you've got there. Does your OED have any words that mean "softer than soft"? That's how you would have to describe my two sci-fi books. Hey, if I knew how to really explain time travel, then I'd quit writing and build my own darn time machine and start causing mischief throughout the ages.