I have access to the OED and I’m not afraid to use it

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.

Word Choice and Authorial Patterns

I was super-intrigued by the Slate article that’s getting passed around the internet, comparing the most-often used sentences and descriptive words in The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter. Textual analysis is a big part of my day job — as my blog entries for the company will show — so I thoroughly enjoyed the comparative exploration of three authors.

Most people that I’ve seen have been more interested in the “most common sentences” chart, and that one does reveal a lot — I think, more than anything, by way of illustrating the differences in first person present, first person past, and third person past styles. It doesn’t surprise me that all three demonstrate fairly simple sentences. You can tell an amazing story without needing to convolute every sentence, and the ones likely to repeat will undoubtedly be the simple ones. A more complex sentence would lose power in repetition. Rowling and Collins still exhibit far more variety in their simple sentences than Meyer does, however (read into that what you will), which makes the difference between Rowlings and Collins more interesting to me. Collins’s simple sentences are explanatory — the first person narrator has to introduce the reader to a lot of given details. Rowling, on the other hand, describes action, often emotionally inflected, to tell the reader what’s going on.

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On the whole, though, I thought that the most distinctive adjectives list was more interesting — at least more telling, for what it says about each author and each story. Setting aside “drunk” (a descriptor for Haymitch used both in the narrative and in a lot of dialogue, from what I remember), the other adjectives in The Hunger Games are very action-oriented in a way that demonstrates Katniss’s blinkered focus on the task at hand. It represents her character well — she is not a big picture person. She is task-oriented. Meyer’s adjectives, on the other hand, illustrate pretty clearly what I find to be the disturbing emotional tenor of those books. And then JK’s are, like her sentence structure, more varied. Some are emotional, some sensory, some descriptive of “what’s going on” in the same way as her common sentences.

As y’all have already seen, I love creating word clouds, so my head naturally gravitates to this sort of analysis. I would love to have a program that would analyze my common sentences, not just individual words — or an automatic rhetoric scanner! That would, I’m sure, point out that I’m overly fond of zeugma and that I really might consider backing up off the tricolon. I wonder what adjectives I’m most prone to, what words I use that aren’t as common to other writers, where my grammatical constructions give me away. (See what I meant about the zeugma and tricolon? It’s a compulsion, really). As the Slate article points out, all writers have “tells” — personal tendencies that might also identify something particular about the story they’re telling. I’d be curious what an external analysis of my own patterns might reveal.