Using Strange Words

Or… how to best use appropriate Terminology in Historical Fiction

The second of three articles previously written for Fictionista Workshop’s Writer’s Toolbox.

As a child, I was taught to use proper terms for everything.  When I had a question about what a word meant, my mother would send me to (drumroll, please) The Dictionary.  This 1935 dictionary was about five inches thick and weighed…well, I don’t know how much it weighed, but it was heavy. And it was my best friend all the way through my undergrad studies.

When I began writing fiction (in my thirties, but early training can stick with one) the insistence upon using the proper terms, with full knowledge regarding their appropriate application, was important to me.  But, like most any nerdy know-it-all, I tended to overuse all that I knew at first.

Don’t Overwhelm

Readers of historical fiction want to have a flavor for the era in which they find themselves. An historical tale about the Scottish Highlands, for example, should definitely mention men in kilts.  They will want to hear a bit of an accent, too.  Some “braw shoulders” would not go amiss. Nor do “yon brogues” in the mention of footwear.  Readers want to know if the claymore is the weapon of choice in a battle. They might even be interested to know it is sometimes more accurately written as claidheamh mòr.

Terms like these are enough to flavor the historical fiction story.  Using too many, however, is like adding far too much cumin to your curry, garlic powder to your stuffing, or gravy to your mashed potatoes. The essence of the story is overwhelmed by the accents.  This is not a good idea.

Speaking in Tongues

Hard and fast rules about characters speaking in their “native tongues” are not to be found, but there are some common sense notions on this subject.  Remember, as a writer, that your first priority is to share a story with your readers.  To that end, your narrative should flow and dialogue (internal and external) should suit the characters.  You should endeavor not to draw a reader out of the story if possible.



It is fun to hear a character speaking the occasional word in “their” language.  An occasional word of Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge) or Old Norse or Latin is flavorful.  Readers will enjoy knowing that a woman’s long tunic/dress is a léine, but they probably don’t need to hear an entire conversation about pulling teeth in Gaeilge.

Another concern some authors might find is when to use native languages. Should the reader only read the words as “foreign” when the characters speak or should the words be sprinkled throughout unspoken narrative?  This is purely author’s choice (at least until your editors get a crack at your manuscript), but remember that if one is hearing a “foreign” word, it isn’t always comprehensible.

Keep it Real

As I mentioned earlier, I tended to be a nerdy know-it-all when I first started writing historical pieces. (Some might argue that I still am!) For history geeks like myself, there is a certain kind of joy in sharing the minutiae one encounters during research.  Words that were hard to find to suit a situation, a rare term or expression indigenous to a people or place, newly-discovered slang—these things can make the true history geek giggle gleefully as they seek paths where the new information can be shared.

Which is fine, when it works.  A scene can be structured to include the new findings, true, but as a writer, you want to make sure (again) that the focus is on your story rather than the accents you bring to it.  Keep the flow organic, natural, not forced just to include the new information.  Historical fiction is storytelling.  Educational? Sure.  But remember that the goal is not to teach a college course in, say, Koine, a Greek language.  The goal is to tell the story about people that might speak that language.  Make sure the terms and language usage are “real” for that time and purpose, not forced to conform to some new—and extremely cool!—information you found in your research.

When your readers reach “The End” you want them to come away satisfied, intrigued about a different time and place.  You want them to feel as if they’ve been immersed in a new experience, but not uncomfortably so.  Bring them with you, but don’t overwhelm them with details.

If you find that, after your story is complete, you still have a lot you want to share?  Blog it! Because there are history geeks out there just like me who will want to read what you’ve found.  We’ll all benefit and have a good time, which is really what it’s all about.quill2-1