Guest Post – E.C. Ambrose on the challenges of getting the words right in a historical novel


When she graciously invited me to visit on her blog, Juliet expressed some frustration over the problem of words—specifically, genuine, specific and appropriate words that we’re just not allowed to use, or must work in very carefully. She invited me to comment on the problem of words. Not long ago, working my way through my editor’s notes on Elisha Mancer, this month’s release in The Dark Apostle series, I encountered first hand the difficulty of words. Words are, in a novel, the primary tool for delivering the story. In a historical novel, they take on a special significance because selecting an appropriate word for the historical context can really make the sentence spark and the work feel right. And selecting the wrong word will annoy readers in tune with the history.

Which brings me to the problem of plagues. The Biblical plagues of Egypt, for instance. In modern parlance, “plague” retains a similar sense: a plague is, as the OED puts it, “an affliction, calamity, evil, scourge” (a plague of locusts, a plague of survey callers, etc.) But many readers of medievally set historical fiction immediately leap to a single meaning of the word, which came into use around 1382 to refer to a pestilence affecting man and beast. And “the plague” wasn’t conceived as a specific entity until the 1540’s. But basically, I can’t use the word in its historically accurate sense.

My difficulty with language then versus now doesn’t end with the plague. There is also the problem of things being lost in translation. Saints, that is. While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another (sometimes metaphorically), the origin of the term is actually the transfer of a religious figure from one location to another, as a bishop who moves to a different see, or, more frequently, a saint or saint’s remains taken to a different church. It is this idea of holiness being moved or removed which brought the word to its present meaning, because the most work common work translated was the Bible itself.

“Broadcast” is another interesting example. Nowadays, we are used to “broadcast” news, a television or radio phenomenon by which information is shared. It’s actually a farming term, referring to the sowing of seeds by hand over a large area–the literal casting of the seed in a wide dispersal. But most readers, finding the word in a medieval historical context would leap to entirely the wrong impression, thinking I am using an anachronism. And so, rather than submit to a plague of criticism, I had to use something less historically appropriate, but more suitable to a contemporary audience.

This problem of words first arose in Elisha Barber, volume one of the series, when I referred to someone as a “blackguard,” a useage which can’t be traced to before the 16th century (my editor has an OED also, which is both blessing and curse). I ended up changing the insult to “chattering churl,” which not only employs a 14th century jibe, but adds to it the tendency to use alliterative insults from the same time period. Stretching for the historically appropriate choice actually resulted in an even more historical put-down.

As you can see, there are multiple layers to this dilemma. Is the word historically accurate? Will my readers understand it? Does it have contemporary implications that were not present in the period, but will complicate or undermine my intended meaning?

My series is based around medieval medicine, and surgery in particular, requiring some amount of period jargon appropriate to the profession. In this case, I rely strongly on context to invest the reader in the words. Sometimes, I can use the reaction of another character—their horror or confusion providing an innocent to whom the word can be explained. Sometimes, the meaning becomes clear as the action proceeds, and sometimes, the specific meaning is less important than that the new word becomes part of the framework of history on which the tale is woven.

Elaine Isaac
In book 3, Elisha Rex, one of my characters undergoes trepanation, an infamous medieval operation to ease a compressed skull fracture. Success rates were actually quite good, but most people rightly view with dread the idea that someone will cut a hole in their head. When that someone is a 14th century surgeon without recourse to anasthesia or antiseptic, the horror increases. The patient in the book is asked if he understands what will happen during the operation, and he replies, “Shave the scalp, make a cruciform incision, perforate, reginate, elevate.” My editor didn’t know what “reginate” means—I expect most readers don’t either–but the fact that it follows cutting open someone’s scalp, then the word “perforate” makes that unknown word all the more sinister.

In this case, I didn’t explain all of the unfamiliar terms surrounding the operation. Part of our fear of doctors stems from the fact that we don’t always understand what they say, yet we also know we need to trust them. We submit ourselves in part because of their professional demeanor, and jargon in this case is both symbolic of the doctor’s training, and of our own helplessness beneath the blade. Those mixed emotions of trust and dread link the reader’s experience with that of the character and, I hope, create a compelling scene—because of the right word, in the right place and time.

Want to know more? For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, like a scroll-over image describing the medical tools on the cover of Elisha Barber, visit www.TheDarkApostle.com

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at http://ecambrose.wordpress.com/
See also –
https://twitter.com/ecambrose
https://www.facebook.com/ECAmbroseauthor

Buy Links for volume one, Elisha Barber:
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6 comments

  1. <While we now use the word “translate” to refer exclusively to taking words or ideas from one language into another

    Not so; the word “translate” does still also get used to mean “move from one place to another”. Sometimes, as you correctly suggest, as the movement of a religious from one charge to another or of a “religious artifact”, but more commonly to mean the re-calculation of a coordinate data set about a new origin and/or axes orientation, or a sharp change in the direction of travel of a body in motion.

    1. I should have removed the word “exclusively” there as you wisely point out–my intention was more to discuss the origin of the term, rather than to suggest that it no longer refers to physical movement.

      In any case, thanks for reading!

      1. To some extent my quibble was that we use the word in multiple senses. Of course, that may be a reflection on my experience that the F&SF community tends to have a very high number of fans with post-school education in one or more of science, engineering, modern and/or ancient languages and literature?

  2. I appreciate your problem only too clearly. I’m writing a book set in 1610 and like you, have not only had to be cautious about introducing too many modern words, but also being mindful that many of the common words of the time meant something sufficiently different. While there will be a sufficient number of people who will know the original meaning to be thoroughly fed up if I resort to the modern definition, using it in its correct historical context is likely to confuse a large number of readers, anyway…

    1. It’s always hard to know which audience we’re writing to–and it’s more fun if we can leave some “Easter eggs” for those in the know, while not confusing those who aren’t. Thanks for reading–have you found any good work-arounds for the problem?

    2. Just as my personal view, I’d rather see the word used “in period” since I find that anachronism is one way of breaking the 4th wall (if that applies in literature like in video?)

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