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The thing about writing historical novels is that you have to be really careful about your diction. Word choice matters a lot — you don’t want to choose words that are too obviously modern or that refer to concepts that would have been alien to your characters. I often find myself running into walls where medical and technological terms are concerned, even if they’re only used metaphorically.  You can’t have your Tudor-era heroine say, “You nearly gave me a heart attack!” the way a modern heroine could, since the term “heart attack” doesn’t come into use until 1836. Other problems might involve geographical details. A Roman novel I read recently had Mark Antony referring to pumpkins — a squash only found in the New World. Apart from just plain being inaccurate, those slip-ups can jerk a reader out of the world of the narrative, and we never want that.

The situation’s more complicated when you’re not writing in the language your characters speak — especially when your characters speak, say, Latin. How do you translate linguistic intent out of a dead language? How to make dialogue sound colloquial without crossing that threshold of modernity? What to do about metaphors? All well and good for Shakespeare to have Cassius referring to the clock striking three, but you can’t get away with that sort of slipshod work in today’s industry of fiction. It’s particularly hard when it comes to idiomatic speech. If the word itself didn’t exist, couldn’t exist, because the language didn’t — could the concept for those words exist? Yesterday, for instance, I realized I had a character referring to needing an outlet for her energy — and it gave me pause. Did the word “outlet” pre-date electricity? Oh dear.

outletOEDThe OED is one of my best friends. I love that, since I work for an institution affiliated with a college, I retain my access to its wonderful online compendium. It means that it only takes me a few clicks to verify that, yes, the word “outlet” is older than electricity, and its original usage refers to the movement of water. (If I’d thought about it for a few minutes, I probably would’ve realized that on my own, but… this way I get to use the OED!) The word dates to the 13th century as a noun, all the way back to Old English as a verb, and comes to us via Dutch, but its concept is certainly something the Romans would’ve had familiarity with. Admittedly, the emotional sense of the word didn’t come in to English until the mid-17th century, but I think the metaphor translates reasonably well for my purposes. (Latona’s own word for it, incidentally, probably would’ve been emissarium, or else egressus, exitus, or even porta, the gate — though if she were speaking literally of a water-channel rather than figuratively of her emotions, it would’ve been effluvium).

Something I once looked up for another project was “automatic”. Initially, I thought this might date only about to the time of clockwork — but  no! Both the Greeks and Romans had the concept of the automaton! The root words refer more to plants, strangely enough, with more of a sense of “spontaneous, happening by itself” than the more mechanical connotation we give it today — though when you look at things like the Antikythera Mechanism, it’s certainly plausible that, at some point in time, at least in some parts of Greece, they might’ve had the concept in the mechanical sense as well.

Words are fantastic. I’m so happy I have access to a resource that lets me in on their secrets.