Death to Euphemisms

Or, How to Write Historical Fiction Without Sounding Like You’re Trying Too Hard

I find historical fiction that uses a lot of period cant problematic. On the one hand, when it’s done well the linguistic flourishes add depth to the setting and help make you feel like you’re reading about another time on a subconcious level.  On the other hand, when it’s done poorly the writing becomes ridiculous and difficult to take seriously.

I am a fairly cautious writer. Unless I am either certain of my skill set or so invested in an idea that I will put a ton of research time into it, I tend to just circumvent the issue.  With respect to using slang, I…generally don’t. I will sprinkle in a few choice lines here and there in dialogue, where a period phrase I know is the perfect summation of a feeling or situation, or where a modern expletive is easy to replace with an older one, but because I do not think in that language, neither do my characters.

I find myself having to stop and re-word deep point of view sometimes, when a character thinks in a modern euphemism. I know better than to use words like “okay” simply by reflex, but what about phrases like “she didn’t want to broadcast her distress.”  Is “broadcast” an appropriate verb for an early 19th century heroine to use? I have not consulted the OED on this one, but I assume it relates to radio waves and therefore should not be used. 

Moments like this make me realize just how much of our everyday language we take for granted…how many metaphors and euphemisms are buried in words we use by rote.  Catching them all is hard.  But if you can’t be arsed to use actual period slang, the least you can do is avoid modern usages that would be incomprehensible to the characters you’re writing about.

Capish? (Or capice, however it would be spelled when said as the movie mobsters say it.)



Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Death to Euphemisms

  1. duncanhamiltonauthor

    I couldn’t help but check my OED, broadcast as a verb, with the meaning of scattering or disseminating widely is listed as having a reference as early as 1829!

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