Writing Historical Words

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By Jane Kirkpatrick

If the novel is set in the early 1800s in New England should a writer use contractions when the speech pattern of the era didn’t? Or rather did not? What about word choice? Should my character say “He lacked drive” or “he lacked ambition?” Which word would resonate with the people of 1821? These are just a few of the questions that rumbled around in my head while writing about one of the first female lobbyists in the United States working on behalf of the mentally ill.

My editor helped me resolve the contraction question. Even though the lack of contractions slows the pace a bit, the dialogue and narrative sound more authentic and help readers enter the “mystery” of another place and time more easily and return there after they’ve been interrupted from their read by a dryer buzzer going off or the question of a child. Dorothea Dix, the protagonist in my historical novel based on a real woman, was a proper Bostonian woman so it’s also fitting that her speech would have been formal. I read the entire manuscript out loud after making all the contraction changes — another way to get the feel of the early 19th Century. It sounded right.

Now the word choice issue. Sometimes using words common in one period are either not known to contemporary readers or the meaning has changed. “Drive”, a friend reminded me, denotes self-motivation while ambition has self-aggrandizing overtones. Still, did ambition have such self-aggrandizing qualities in 1821? I can search (and did).

The etymology of “ambition is “from Latin ambitionem “a going around,” especially to solicit votes, hence “a striving for favor, courting, flattery…. Rarely used in the literal sense in English, where it carries the secondary Latin sense of “eager or inordinate desire of honor or preferment.” In early use ambition was grouped with pride and vainglory.

Then I looked at “drive” as a noun. “Act of driving,” from drive (v.). Meaning “excursion by vehicle” is from 1785. Golfing sense of “forcible blow” is from 1836. Meaning “organized effort to raise money” is 1889, American English. Sense of “dynamism” is from 1908. In the computing sense, first attested 1963. For my story, the lack of a sense of “dynamism” didn’t occur until after my story was set so it’s unlikely my character would use “drive” in that way. So the dialogue says a certain character lacked ambition and did not seek honor nor did he wish to “go around and get votes” But his daughter, my protagonist, did.

One of the features I love about writing historical novels is how much I learn about history, and especially about language, the life-blood of all writing and using language to create a world readers will step into and still feel at home there.

Look for One Glorious Ambition: The Compassionate Crusade of Dorothea Dix. (WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group – April 2012)

Jane Kirkpatrick is the New York Times Bestselling author of three non-fiction titles and 23 novels most based on the lives of historical women. She’s a private pilot, dog lover, former rancher and mental health clinic director. A Wisconsin native she lives with her husband of 36 years in Central Oregon.

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