If you write historical fiction, you learn to question every spontaneous bit of dialog you put on the page. Or at least, you should.

A Piece of Cake

It’s very easy to put a turn of phrase into a character’s mouth that couldn’t have possibly been there in the character’s place and time. I run into this kind of error all the time when I’m reading historical fiction. My all time favorite (and I use that term sarcastically) was the story set in 17th century Scotland and the big burly hero who assures the woman he’s with that she needn’t worry about getting home safely. He can manage it, he tells her. It’s a piece of cake.

How’s that for ruining the fictive trance? Like an ice cube dropped down the back of your shirt on a hot July day. I simply could not believe the words I was reading on the page. Where was the editor? The proofreader? The author?

That is an extreme example, I admit it In reality, the things you have to watch out for are the references which seem to be okay on the surface. For example: Could a character in Boston in 1811 quote Jane Austen? How about a nursery rhyme ala Mother Goose?

You can find information about the dates of publication for Austen’s work — and in great detail. Mother Goose is a little more complicated. The Wikipedia article (which of course, must be taken with a dozen of wikisalt) outlines the history in as far as it has been reconstructed. From that you might surmise that if your character is familiar with Mother Goose, she might be more likely to be familiar with the French version.

All of this, for a tiny bit of dialog? Can’t you just… wing it?

And the answer is, yes. You can. But be prepared, because you are bound to get mail from the few people in the world who (1) have read your novel and (2) happen to know a lot about Mother Goose in all her permutations. You think this is a stretch?

I have got mail from people telling me that I used the wrong kind of bell on a sleigh for the year 1792 and the wrong kind of hawk for a particular part of the Adirondacks. Just to name two highlights.

Also, I freely admit that I am obsessive compulsive when it comes to this kind of thing. I can’t just let it go, not until I have satisfied myself that I’m okay using that turn of phrase. And even then, I’m sometimes wrong.

This happens even when you are careful. There is a very good historical by an author I admire a lot, in which a character is described as neurotic. As this story was set in 1860, I guessed this to be an anachronism. Because, as far as I knew, the term originated with Freud, who was four years old in 1860.

So in my ocd way, I went and looked it up and it turns out that the first use of the word neurotic was by William Cullen 1769, in a treatise on nervous disorders. So it wasn’t an anachronism after all… or was it? Dr. Cullen’s Synopsis Nosologiae Methodicae was published in 1785 — in Latin. Would the character in question have been reading one hundred year old medical texts in Latin? Or heard them talked about?

My bottom line: I would not have used the term, because it would cause some readers to pull up short. That’s what it did for me, and my rule of thumb is to never underestimate my readers.

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