I'm back, earlier than expected, and peevish

…don’t ask.

I will probably need a few days to recover before I’m posting regularly, but I wanted to check in quickly to answer a question that arrived while I was gone, and to respond to a comment. The question: have any of the Wilderness books been optioned for film? The answer: Yes. Bigger answer: Nothing came of it, and I don’t think anything ever will come of it. Big books don’t make good movies.

Here’s a comment somebody named Bert posted in response to one of my reviews of Deadwood:


Bert is shouting at me because somehow he has this idea that *I* am HBO.

It would be nice, I suppose, if I were. Think of the great things I could do. I could wave my wand and have a new season of Farscape, fully funded, complete artistic license for the writers and directors and actors. I could call the cast of The Sopranos in and make them eat lunch with me. I could contact Meryl Streep and say, hey, you need to be working more, got any projects in mind? I could cast the screenplay I wrote with my friend Suz and have a good shot at actually getting the director and actors we want, and the budget necessary to film in Italy.

In many ways it would be great fun to actually be HBO, but I’m not, so Bert’s anger, as colorful as it is, is wasted.

Finally, you’ll have noted that Bert forbids me to email him about his feelings. Which is just fine, really, because I hadn’t actually scheduled the time necessary to give Bert’s feelings the attention they deserve, nor do I think he’d much like what I’d have to say. Of course it seems to me that it would be a good thing for Bert to talk to somebody about his feelings — he’s an angry guy, is Bert — but I’m happy to leave that to somebody — to just about anybody — else. Is Ernie in the house, by any chance?

Peevish? Me? Well, maybe a little. I just drove eight hours in driving rain, two of those hours in stop and go traffic. Let’s just say that Bert’s timing stinks, as do his spelling and his powers of deduction.

hard times, hard stories

There’s a new, very angry comment to my first review of Deadwood , by someone who is clearly very upset by this HBO drama for a whole range of reasons. In part:

People, real, living, people are being bombed, shot and humiliated. Hate is alive and well and taking more life away from people than we can count bodies. And yet we freedom-loving, self gratifying Americans are fascinated by pitiful human relationships and vacuums of love and mercy, enough to keep HBO reaching for more. We are a sick folk and we have yet to learn how to care for each other and value life for all its fragility.

I’m not quite sure what to do with this, because the underlying question is both very simple, and outrageously complex. I’ll try to break it down. This may be it: why tell stories about terrible people and times when there is so much grief in the world just now? Or, more simply: is art (in any form) a necessity or self indulgence?

Big question. I certainly can’t answer it in a few pithy lines except to say that I might well be able to exist alone in a cave on a diet of bread and water, but that wouldn’t be a life worth living. The need for companionship and mental stimulation are as important, in the long run, as food and sleep.

There has never been any lack of sorrow and violence in the world. We are a contentious species, just as we have always –and will always — tell stories.

avoiding language anachronisms

This topic has come up now and again, in posts about Gone with the Wind and more recently, Deadwood. It’s a technical and creative issue at the same time, and quite a tricky one, especially for people writing historical fiction or telling stories from the past on the screen.

The novelist has to find the balance between historical accuracy and the reader’s comfort level. There are extremes. On one end you might say that accuracy is everything, and damn the reader’s comfort; at the other, you might toss concerns about language accuracy out the window, and operate much in the way of Star Trek, where everybody understands everybody else, regardless of species or background, and nobody ever bothers to explain how that might be. Putting science fiction aside for a moment (although I keep meaning to write about language issues in Farscape, and will sometime) everybody has examples to share from novels and films that really stumble on language accuracy. Even really good writers mess up this way now and then; it’s almost impossible not to. Shakespeare had bells tolling in ancient Rome; Dorothy Dunnett once had her character Lymond proclaimed neurotic (in 17th century Scotland long before Freud was ever born). I read a novel (the title of which I’m blocking out) set in 15th century England where the main character tries to calm down a woman in distress by assuring her that the battle ahead of him is a piece of cake. In a comment to one of my posts about Deadwood, somebody pointed out that they used the word trenchmouth, which was coined in WWI.

The problem with lexical anachronisms is that they potentially destroy the fictive trance you work so hard to establish for your reader. It’s like ice water on the back of your neck on a hot day; you can’t not notice.

So how to avoid this mistake? One thing you can do is check idiomatic words and phrases for their place and time of origin. The Oxford English Dictionary is the usual place to do this, although it has some limitations. First, it’s too expensive for most people to own and even if you did invest, the hard-copy version is always out of date; second, it’s too expensive for most people to access on-line ($29.95 a month or $295 annually) unless you have library priviledges at a college or university that subscribes; third, (and most important) it’s limited to written language usage.

A word exists in the OED’s version of language history only once it has been written down. It should be clear that for most of the history of the English language, usage was not recorded anywhere at all, and so it’s hard to know when or where particular coins were actually used. On the other hand, the versatility and utterly amazing scope of the OED’s on-line search engine makes it useful in so many other ways, its limitations seem less important. You can, for example, search for whole phrases and idiomatic expressions. The next time I’ve got access to the on-line version, I’m going to see if they have the earliest citation recorded for ‘bald as an egg’ and while I’m at it, I’ll look up ‘piece of cake’ to see when it was first used, in writing, to mean ‘without problem or difficulty’ (I’m guessing it evolved from ‘easy as pie’ used in the same way). What I know for sure is, none of my characters, who inhabit the early 19th century, would have any idea what it means to say such a thing, and keep those words out of their mouths.

Of course, the more recent the setting of your story, the harder it becomes to check for origin and usage. I’ve got a steel sieve of a mind when it comes to remembering when certain phrases were in use. I know ‘cool’ was used when I was in high school, went out of vogue for a very long time, and then came back in, but I’d be afraid to put it in the mouth of a character in the year 1989 without checking, first. Slang associated with particular social groups has a very short shelf life, and can trip you up badly. There are dictionaries, of course, but they are out of date even before they are published, for the most part, and the OED can’t keep up with the incredible flexibility and creative power of spoken language.

There’s another, far stickier matter having to do with language anachronisms that I’ll look at (briefly) tomorrow.

deadwood & the reconstruction of historical vernacular

If you read my review of Deadwood (HBO) you’ll know that I like it a lot, but I was critical of the anachronistic use of language. Robert Armstrong objected to the criticism and commented:

… However, much historical research was done to produce Deadwood and the dialog is authentic.Check out Noel Holston’s article at

So I did go have a look at the article. Newsday is a subscription service, but here’s an excerpt with the salient points.

The article is by Noel Holston, dated March 21, 2004

Welcome to the vile, vile West.

“Deadwood” is the most profane western in the history of the genre. … Just about everybody…uses polysyllabic epithets of the sort we associate with Tony Soprano and gangsta rappers. It’s language so unprecedentedly blistering, even some tough, jaded TV critics have been moved to ask, “What the, ah, heck, is this?”… According to Milch, it’s a much closer approximation of the language of the real West, that’s what. “That’s the way they spoke,” he said. “I researched the show a good, long time – over a year – and went through a tremendous amount of primary material. And the one thing upon which everyone agrees was that the profanity and obscenity was astounding. It was overwhelming. People who would visit would report that they simply couldn’t believe the way people spoke out there.”… Note that Milch said “primary” material. He’s talking about accounts of Deadwood in letters and diaries from the time in which his show is set and oral histories collected by the Library of Congress’ Living Memory project. … Rather than take Milch’s explanation at face value, I did a bit of primary research myself…. Don Reeves, the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, recently oversaw the installation of an exhibit about the cinematic West. … He said the expression “cusses like a sailor” would apply equally to cowboys, but he was quick to add that, from his study, the salty language of the 1870s wouldn’t necessarily be the same as today’s profanity. [emphasis added]… Milch said that however startling the language in “Deadwood” may be, shock is not his point. “The lawlessness of the language is, first of all, something that I hope people will get used to,” he said. “But it [also] establishes an atmosphere, verbally, in which anything is possible. And at that point, the viewer, one hopes, is brought to some sort of emotional equivalency with the environment and then begins to identify how certain characters rise above it.”

I also went to look at the data at the American Experience website at the Library of Congress. There were a number of oral histories but no letters that I could find. The only mention of swearing I ran into at all was a recollection of Wild Bill Hickok that mentioned that he was very quiet, and rarely swore. Of course the letters may well be there, and I just didn’t find them — I’m assuming that they are. But here’s the problem. In 1875 “I can’t believe the way they talk!” means something different than it does in 2004. As the historian pointed out (bold faced in the excerpt above), salty language is a relative term.

The writers for the series went looking for hints on how people talked, and my guess is that they have over-interpreted what they found, or maybe they just decided that they wanted the shock value of the strongest language possible for the present day. In either case, I stand by my original criticism.

This is an issue of some importance to writers of historical fiction, and of particular interest to me because of my academic background. The short answer to the question of how to handle language of the past is (as I see it) this: you can’t get it completely right, but it is possible to avoid the worst kinds of generalizations and errors. ((An example of how I handled this issue in the Wilderness books: Robbie is a Scot from the Lowlands, thus is first language is Scots, and English is his second language. Scots and English are related, but distinct languages, somewhat like the relationship between Dutch and German — there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but Scots and English are still distinct and associated with different nation-states. Scots is different from English primarily in that many sound changes which originated in the south of England and moved northwards petered out — or, to put it more accurately — were resisted by those in the north. Now, all of this has nothing to do with Gaelic, which is another language from a completely different language family. Gaelic and other forms of the Celtic languages were spoken all through the island before the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions, which gave rise to English. The Celtic peoples were driven back, into Cornwall and Wales and up into Scotland. In the eighteenth century, Gaelic was the first language of the Scottish Highlands. Many people there spoke nothing else. If they did speak something besides Gaelic, it might have been Scots, but not necessarily. It might have been English. Novelists like to portray Highlanders as speakers of Scots, but that’s unlikely in most cases. This is similar to the way we like to think of King Arthur as speaking English, when that language did not even exist during his lifetime. So in Robbie’s case, he grew up in the Lowlands, speaking Scots. He learned English subsequently when he went to the Colonies, but he always spoke it reluctantly, and with a strong Scots flavoring.

As you might guess from this rather detailed answer, I have a PhD in linguistics and I take a lot of interest in the language issues. So when Robbie was developing as a character, I went to various people who could be counted as experts on Scots. Lesley Milroy, a sociolinguist who happens to be a Lowland Scot, was a great deal of help. I have about fifteen volumes on Scots (history, structure, vocabulary) and I have also found extremely helpful sights on the web. One of the best is put together by Andy Eagle (Sneck here for tae gang til a cuttie Scots furthsettin o his wabsteid!).))

The other question, and it is a valid one, is how to avoid anachronism without alienating modern day readers. That’s a topic for another time, I think.