We’ve all read them: modern words, phrases, inventions, or brand names that somehow sneak their way into settings that are supposed to predate them. Language is constantly changing, as are the ways that we use words, so if you want your period piece or time travel story to sound authentic, it’s important to take note of which words your characters use. A manor in the year 1400, for instance, isn’t going to have any doorknobs (invented in 1878); a child in the 1860s isn’t going to carry around a teddy bear (invented in 1902); and sadly, no one in the 19th century is going to be snacking on chocolate chip cookies (invented in 1933).
Though anachronisms can be used to infuse humor into a piece of fiction (i.e. The Emperor’s New Groove, A Knight’s Tale, the Monty Python movies, or any Mel Brooks film), when a story is shooting for historical accuracy, these elements can throw the reader out of a story faster than a ’52 Corvette (first produced in 1953).
While editing THE GRANDMOTHER PARADOX, the second novella in my Place in Time series, which is set to be released on July 10, my editor found a word that didn’t seem quite right for the 1893 setting, which sent me on a search down a research rabbit hole into the word’s etymology and usage in history. The word in question: stalker.
My initial thoughts circled around famous serial killers. After all, Jack the Ripper dated back to 1888, and I knew I’d seen him referred to as a stalker, as was H.H. Holmes, who stalked his victims during the very World’s Fair which I was writing about. But just because we nowadays refer to them as stalkers doesn’t mean that’s the term that was used in their day. So, I turned to one of my favorite resources to seek out an answer: Etymonline.com
This online etymology dictionary is a quick way to search those words which seem a bit suspect. For instance, when I searched “stalker” it came up with this definition:
So while the word technically was in existence during the 1890s, the definition wasn’t the one I’d intended and could cause confusion for my characters. The modern-day character who was using it would think that he was referring to someone who obsessively harassed a person, while my character from the 19th century would think it was simply someone prowling around to try to steal something.
This sort of changing language isn’t at all uncommon. The word “awful,” for instance, used to mean “worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe.” World War I wasn’t referred to as such until World War II was underway. This is one reason why it’s a good idea, when researching for a novel, for historical fiction writers to read primary sources: newspapers, articles, journals, and books that were written during that era – not just for the details of the setting itself, but for how language is used, in order to make your dialogue and narrative sound more authentic.
Listed below are some bonus resources which may be useful when trying to write accurate historical fiction:
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and various e-zines and anthologies. Her time travel novella, The Continuum, was published by World Weaver Press in January 2018, with a sequel following in July. For more info, visit wendynikel.com