lexical choice

We were watching a western on dvd last night (I cannot resist Robert Duvall in a western. I can’t see anybody but Gus McCrae when he’s on the screen, and Gus is one of my all time favorite fictional men.

/cue quote/: I met a wonderful new man yesterday. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything/end quote.

Where was I. Oh yes, lexical choice. If you write historical fiction you’re always on the alert about getting simple vocabulary right. They didn’t use the term ‘strep throat’ in the early 1800s, because the strep bacillus hadn’t been isolated or identified. So your character does have strep (and thank dog, because back then strep killed a lot of people); your character has a putrid sore throat.

Some lexical anachronisms are bound to slip through, no matter how hard you (or your editor) look for them. Most of the time you won’t even realize it’s an anachronism until a reader who happens to be an expert in sleigh bells or trapping or kitchen implements of 1820 gets in touch and let’s you know where you messed up.

Maybe five people who read the book will catch that kind of error, but most of us who write historical fiction would prefer not to make the mistake in the first place.

So when a historical term comes to my attention that is new to me, I always look it up and think about it for a while.

Yesterday evening Robert Duvall requested that his nephew bring him some convenience paper from town. The Mathematician and I looked at each other and shrugged. A few scenes later it turned out that convenience paper was an early term for commercially made toilet paper. I haven’t had time yet, but I’ve got this on my list of words to check and sooner or later I’ll go on a quest. There may even be a website about the history of toilet paper, or a Wikipedia article. There are millions of people out there with all kinds of interests, and they are happy to share their knowledge with you. Usually.

Are there any historical lexical items which you learned about through a novel or a movie?

not just any detail will do

I realize that I may be overanalyzing this, but I write for a living so I read closely.

Yesterday I picked up a novel. Right at this moment I’m not going to name the author or the title, but I will say: highly regarded, writes high-end thriller/espionage, best seller. And it’s not Patterson.

So. On the first page I stumble on the phrase the bristling rumor mill. I find myself stuck on that sentence. I call up mental pictures of mills. I have done some research on mills for various novels, and I have been in a few mills in various places, some of them still working. A mill has a grindstone and a waterwheel, or it’s powered by wind. Things go around and around. Corn goes in, grits or cormeal come out. Wheat goes in, flour comes out. The raw material is crushed and ground between heavy stones or plates. There’s the coinage “grist for the mill” which is largely figurative.

From The Phrase Finder:

GRIST FOR THE MILL — Something I can use. ‘Grist’ has almost lost its once-familiar meaning of grain taken to a mill to be ground. It lingers only in the figurative meaning, which was around by 1655, when it appeared in Thomas Fuller’s ‘The Church-History of Britain’: ‘And here foreign casuists bring in a bundle of mortal sins, all grist for their own mill.'” From “The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Another reference says “grist” is Old English, action of grinding, grain to be ground (before 1000); related to grindan, to grind. From “The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology” by Robert K. Barnhart (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1995).

Wikipedia has a nice little summary:

The proverb ‘all is grist for the mill’ means ‘everything can be made useful, or be a source of profit.’ There are some minor variations, such as “all’s grist that comes to my/his/her mill”, meaning that the person in question can make something positive out of anything that comes along.

A miller ground whatever grain was brought to him, and charged a portion of the final product for the service. Therefore, all grain arriving at the mill represented income, regardless of its quality. The first recorded usage was in the sixteenth century, but the term is probably much older. The term ‘grist mill’ was once common in the United States and Britain to describe a small mill open to all comers.

Where was I?

Oh yes. I was reading a novel, in which I found a bristling rumor mill. To me, something bristles when it is crowded full, as the bristles on a brush. There’s a sense of jostling in the word bristling, while the primary movement associated with a mill is grinding in nature.

My point (and I do have one) is that this author was sloppy in a way that stopped at least one reader on the first page. My guess is that he had the phrase ‘grist for the mill’ in his memory, but gave it a twist by making the jump from grist to bristle. I suppose it could have been worse, he could have settled on gristle for the mill. That image is a little too grizzly for me.

Eventually I got over this odd phrase and went on. A few pages later a Czechoslovakian tells a Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Imagine this. A border guard who has never been out of the eastern bloc. The border guard speaks Czech and probably some German. It’s the middle of the night, he’s tired, he wants coffee but there isn’t any. He’s got a little mustard at the corner of his mouth, he’s worried about the transmission on his car and now here comes a Russian to give him grief. The Russian wants directions. By all means, tell him what he needs to know, send him on to his destination. For all of his life, and his father’s life, and his grandfather’s life the world he knows has been metric. He thinks in kilometers, but he tells the Russian to walk two miles down the road.

Something here is off. Who thinks in miles? The author, obviously. The author’s own perspective pushes its way into the story with an audible pop.

I am still reading this novel. I’m interested in the way the plot is structured, I’m interested in the main character. Maybe by the end I’ll be ready to forget about bristles and miles, but it will have to be one helluva story to pull that off.

And the moral of this little rant: watch the details. They matter.

Mistress of the Art of Death, Ariana Franklin

[asa book]0060817267[/asa] Karen W. (comment number 24) told a very good story about forgetfulness. So Karen, please send me your postal address and I’ll send out Ariana Franklin’s two recent historicals. You may remember that I reviewed City of Shadows which I really admired. Yesterday I finished Mistress of the Art of Death, set in 1170 in the reign of King Henry II. I think I have to say that Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman) is the logical heir of the Dorothy Dunnett crown: she is the new queen of historical fiction.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Mistress is a wonderful novel, full of interesting characters, with an intriguing plot. It’s one of those novels where much of the conflict comes from cultural differences. The Mistress of the Art of Death is a woman physician (Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar), trained at the famous school of medicine in Salerno, and a specialist in listening to the dead. That is, she is a coroner, trained to examine the dead to see what they have to say about the circumstances of their demise. Set this character in Cambridge circa 1170 when they were still flinging women in rivers to see if they were witches, and you’ve got all kinds of conflict. England at this point was not, shall we say, enlightened.

There is a mystery: four children tortured and murdered; there is a community of Jews who are blamed, some of whom are lynched absent of any evidence, and the rest driven from their homes and businesses; there is the very intelligent and crafty king: Henry II, who is not pleased about this treatment of his Jews, mostly because they are shut up in protective custody and the income he derives from their taxes is sorely missed. And there are the three people called from Italy (a female physician, a Jewish investigator, and a Saracen bodyguard and servant) by Henry to sort this business out.

There is also a romance, a mature but very lively romance between Adelia (the physician) and another major character… but I won’t give too much away.

What I especially liked about this novel was the way it brought Henry II to life. He was a progressive thinker and instituted many excellent changes to the legal system, among other advances, but he is remembered primarily as the king who got into a tussle with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a conflict that ended when some over eager knights of Henry’s solved the problem (or so they thought) by killing Becket in his cathedral. There have been movies about Henry — his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the fights about who would follow him as king (The Lion in Winter, among others) and of course Becket (play and a film version which has recently been restored and re-released –). I saw Becket at a very young age, because of course it was de rigeur viewing for Catholic school kids in the 60s (along with The Singing Nun), as it is strongly pro-church and rah rah Becket.

I seem to have been led astray. Let me summarize: the novel is excellent, and I am happy to send it, along with the also excellent City of Shadows, to Karen W.

in which I find I have more ego than I thought

Today, in between packing and running around, I checked over at Wikipedia to see if they had banished me yet, and had a look at the ‘discussion’ page. One king kind person made an argument for my notability; another scolded her soundly. Obviously, she said, finger wagging, you don’t understand the meaning of the word notability. A few publications do not notability make. We need secondary sources.

I mentioned this to a close friend who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Secondary sources? Secondary sources? What about the article in People Magazine? What about the mention in Entertainment Weekly? What about the New York Times Book Reviews review, and the Washington Post book review, and the articles in the English papers when you were short listed for the Orange Prize?

For a minute I was very disoriented, and then I did remember those things. But you know what? I never kept records. All I remember about the little article in People is: 1) really awful photo; 2) lukewarm praise; 3) I first saw it on a ferry on my way to Vancouver Island and I laughed out loud, so that everybody moved away from me. All I remember about Entertainment Weekly: they quoted the first sentence of Into the Wilderness, which was nice. I can’t even remember if either of these short pieces mentioned my real name, or if it was just Sara Donati.

But do I have those citations? Clippings? Anything. Nope. I do have the citations for the big book reviews and some of the Orange Prize and PEN/Hemingway award stuff. I put it here for posterity, in case my forgetfulness creeps up and grabs this stuff out of my head sooner than expected:

“Orange Prize special report” Guardian Unlimited (London),
Wednesday June 6, 2001

*this special report was notable for two things: another terrible photo, and the odds against my winning were pretty bad. Like, third from the bottom (of seven finalists). However, somebody with worse odds than me won, so I have no idea what that means. I do know that two of the five judges told me afterwards that I had been a very, very close second, and that they had fought for me and almost won. And that was comfort enough for me. Although the fifty thousand pounds would have been nice, too.

“The Orange Prize Challenge”The Independent (London), May 24, 2001

*I have no distinct memories of this article at all.

The Orange Prize (Britain)
2001 shortlist: Homestead by Rosina Lippi reviewed by Dylan Evans

Homestead (review) by Brigitte Frase The New York Times Book Review May 9, 1999

“PEN/Hemingway Award 1999” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 19, 1999: 155

“Shaped by Time, Place and Family: Fictions About Farthest Austria”
Review of Homestead by Carolyn See. The Washington Post May 29, 1998

So there. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t find me notable, I do have a career.

PS: I have a longer list of book reviews some place, dog knows where; that list includes all the academic stuff as well.