Category Archives: Research

More Fun with Old Lexicons of English: biological

The concept tripping me up linguistically today is how a man of the early 1800s might have expressed “biological child” when referring to making sure a baby born in wedlock was, well, his. The term “natural” would not be appropriate because it would imply illegitimate biological child. “Biological” is unusable because it did not enter English in a provable way until 1819 (given that my story is set no more than 10 years previous, and the term had been coined in German and moved to French by then, it might have been used in spoken English amongst educated persons and just not written down in a record that survived). I don’t want to use a phrase such as “child of his body” because in the context of the flow of the sentence I need a one-word adjective. Using “blood” doesn’t quite work.

In the end I settled for no adjective at all, and perhaps it’s an argument for letting the words just say what they have to say: “…make sure any babe born of the union was his–and therefore the marquess’ grandchild.”

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Good words gone bad: chaste

I spent Friday night and  then yesterday morning at my 3-hour glucose screening reading through Rose Gordon’s Fort Gibson Officer’s trilogy. I don’t normally read a lot of American-set books or Westerns, specifically, mostly because a lot of my early exposure to romance novels were Westerns, and once I found other subgenres the Westerns I had read began to seem painfully low-rent (macho men I would personally want nothing to do with, lots of Stockholm Syndrome plots, lots of native man/white woman stories, etc.). The  premises on this set of books seemed interesting, though, and since the first one was free I figured I’d give them a shot. Obviously since I read all three I liked them well enough, even though I don’t know how much time the author spent really researching the clothing  of the period, which is a trigger for me since, as a costumer, I spend a lot of time researching period clothing even if I don’t spend pages writing about it. But in these books the first mention of a corset was the third one, and each of the heroines was supposedly a relatively wealthy woman. Um. Not so sure that in 1845 ladies, even in the West, ran around with nothing under their dresses but a chemise. But I let that go because it was a very minor detail and the author didn’t dwell on the clothing.

Then I got to the third book, which was in some ways my favorite of the three, and a repeated misuse of the word “chaste” just…irked me.

First, let me share with you my understanding of the word, which goes back to my high school freshman English class and the teacher’s lecture on it while we were reading I believe Shakespeare (or maybe Mallory): “chaste” refers to a woman having no sexual relations outside of marriage. For an unmarried woman, chastity can be equated with celibacy, but for a married woman it cannot–as long as the only man she is having sex with is her husband.

That has been my understanding of the word for almost 20 years, and any time I have used it has been with that meaning in mind.

The scenario in which what I perceived as misuse came up in book 3; after the wedding night, the groom starts feeling like maybe he hadn’t given her much of a choice about whether they had sex at all and decides he doesn’t want to have any more sex unless and until they fall in love. But he doesn’t really verbalize any of this except the not having sex part, so the bride assumes it’s because she’s not a virgin anymore, and she keeps using the term “unchaste” for that. In like three different places in the book.

This bothered me endlessly, not quite enough to put the book down but just about, because it is so contrary to my understanding of the word and how it is meant to be used. She had married him; therefore she could not possibly be “unchaste” after sex with her husband.

So I had to go look up the actual definition of the word to see if she was misusing it or if I was misunderstanding it. From dictionary.com:

1. refraining from sexual intercourse that is regarded as contrary to morality or religion; virtuous.

2. virgin.

3. not engaging in sexual relations; celibate.

4. free from obscenity; decent: chaste conversation.

5. undefiled or stainless: chaste, white snow.

It’s really definitions 1-3 that concern us here.

Obviously the first definition is the one I am familiar with. But it appears that our language recognizes two definitions that would, in fact, support the author’s use (in the context the heroine could have meant either non-virginal or non-celibate when she said “unchaste”).

So who is right here? Do I have a needlessly narrow view on the definition of the word, or is this a case where the wrong usages just overwhelmed the correct use in common vernacular and diluted the power of the word? Is my reluctance, even with evidence of popular usage, to accept the other subdefinitions just a grammarian’s grudge from 1560 (the first documented usage to mean virginal/celibate as opposed to merely not having sex outside of morality/religion)? Would readers mistake my meaning if I used the word chaste, meaning definition 1, for one of the other definitions?

This is one of the points of language upon which my husband and I disagree vehemently. He is very much of the “language changes, that keeps it from dying, embrace it” mentality whereas I genuinely struggle with bastardized meanings that basically redefine/undercut the entire point of the word, which in this case was to differentiate between celibacy and “moral” sexual relations. If you make “celibate” a definition of the term that was created to mean “moral sexual relations,” then you are once more conflating ideas that should be discrete. So how can anyone communicate clearly and precisely with very specific terms if those terms keep getting co-opted to mean the very thing they were intended not to mean?

I don’t intend to sound like we should all be speaking Chaucerian English here; I realize language needs to change. But some variant-definitions are not merely pointless but genuinely detrimental to clear communication, and those are the ones that bother me. No wonder my freshman lit teacher was so up in arms about this one! The dictionary is clearly not going to be helpful to students trying to figure out what, exactly, the term meant in context.

Just for the record, dear readers: while I will attempt to no longer judge writers who use “chaste” for celibate or virginal, since it is clearly not the misuse I believed it to be, I will never use the word in my own writing to mean anything other than its original and primary definition.

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’Tis the Season for Anachronism

I spent most of the day yesterday running through my Christmas novel one last time to add in all the tiny research details I had not bothered to do before then (what carols the heroine sings, where exactly the hero’s brother’s wife is from, which road(s) the hero would have been travelling on from London to get home). I also had a couple places where I’d thought of additional setting texturizers I wanted to add, and I wanted to do one final read-through of the story as a whole to make sure the mood and the flow of it suit my reading aesthetic. I also found a handful of adverbs to remove, a few dull verbs to replace, and two more typos that I had missed.

But I am not here to talk about writer stuff. I want to talk about Christmas as it’s presented in historical romance, specifically Regency romances, how anachronistic it is, and, more importantly, why so many writers dole out those anachronisms.

Basically, Christmas as we know it started in the Victorian era in England, with a Christmas revival starting about 1830. Looking at primary source documents from the end of the 18th century and the Regency, generally speaking the upper-class had decided the traditional pagan-based celebrations like wassailing, Yule logs, and caroling were déclassé and best left to the lower classes, in contrast to the long 18th century in which the rowdy Georgian aristocracy still reveled in such traditions. Local areas might have held onto the old traditions, but they were no longer ubiquitous. Moreover, Christmas was not yet confined to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day but was still extended over the traditional twelve days from Christmas Day to Epiphany Eve (AKA, Twelfth Night). Gift-giving was not a major focus, and Christmas trees would only have existed in an area with a heavy German immigrant population. About the only recognizable features to us would have been children home from school, greenery to decorate the house, extra charity work, and lots of dinner parties with family and friends (spread, again, over the 12 days of Christmas and not the weeks leading up to it).

Yet if you read a Christmas-set Regency romance, more often than not the story focuses on the Christmas season as some special period to be venerated (at least for one of the characters, usually the heroine), comes to a climax on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and one of the modern epithets like “season of hope,” “season of forgiveness,” or “season of giving” will be the dominant theme.

Why? Why do so many writers blatantly ignore what Christmas was–and was not–about during the time period in which they choose to write?

I see two ways to read it, and I don’t know which is more insulting. Depends, I suppose, on whether you consider being called ignorant and/or lazy more of an insult than being called out for bad faith and crass commercial exploitation. For some writers, I’m sure, including modern Christmas mores in a Regency-set story is nothing more than having read other such stories and assuming that our current traditions go back “hundreds” of years without bothering to verify this. I expect that others know better but choose to tell such stories anyway because “the audience” wants proper Christmas stories, not, you know, historically accurate ones.

I don’t know that writers who know better but do it anyway are necessarily writing out of cynicism; most probably think, “Well, who’s to say these individuals might not have celebrated in these ways?”  The problem is in aggregate, when every writer who sets a story during Christmas takes such liberties. Then the body of work of the “Regency Christmas” genre becomes distorted: the period becomes nothing more than window dressing and costumes rather than a necessary and proper part of the story. (A necessary and proper part of an historical romance is, to me, having a story set in that time because it would not have happened the same way in another time.)

My take on the matter is, if you want a modern Christmas story with themes of redemption and hope and renewal, with costumes, write a Victorian story, and if you want a rollicking 12-day party then write a medieval, Restoration, or Georgian story, and if you want a small, unthematic and somewhat rowdy story, then write a Napoleonic or Regency story. But for God’s sake, don’t end it on Christmas Day–that was only the beginning of the season!

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NaNo Is Not the Time for Research

But damn it’s hard to knowingly write a potentially incorrect scene!

I am struggling with special marriage licenses. Specifically, was there a formal wait between issuance and the marriage, or not?

All the web resources I found last night did not mention a wait. BUT I know that once upon a time I found a really fabulous rant about the fact that there was a 3-day wait, that most authors don’t mention and thusly get wrong. In fact, that rant? Was what inspired the entire story I’m writing, because I decided to play with the scenario of what might inspire an aristocrat to try and get around that 3-day wait.

Now I am worried that the rant I read had it wrong, and there was no wait. This would not, in fact, impact the story at all at this point; the dying man’s aristocratic father would still have a reason to bribe Canterbury for a quick special license – it would just be to not do the eligibility research, rather than to either pre-date the license or give a dispensation for skipping the three days. It DOES change the specific conversation, but not the events or their later consequences.

Unfortunately for me…that conversation with Canterbury is the scene I am writing next. I’ve started it, got the father into the room with him. And now…I don’t know which way to write the damn thing. Do I write it both ways so I can just insert the proper one later, when I (hopefully) can get a definitive answer? Or just write it one way now and understand that I might have to tweak it a little bit later?

Oh, the trials of attempting historical accuracy….

In NaNoWriMo news, my word count has sunk to about 950 a day but considering it was a 0 beforehand, and also that on the days I actually write I am averaging more like 1200 words (I am just, obviously, not writing every single day nor making up the ground from skipped days), I am pleased with progress so far. I have revised my goal of “winning” to just getting out of the prologue. 🙂

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I Wouldn’t Hold Out Much Hope for the Tape Deck, Though

Or the Credence.

Spent the weekend like it was 1985, driving around with my husband in his classic old Jeep from the early 80s, listening to the tape deck that we just discovered still works. We have had the car less than a year, and much of that time it’s been in the shop for repairs, and it took us a while to wonder if the radio didn’t work because the antenna was missing rather than because the speakers were busted. Then it took us a while to find any place that sold tapes (God knows we both got rid of all of ours years ago). But, sure enough, when we finally tried a cassette–it PLAYED! The look on people’s faces when we are at an intersection and they see us fiddling with tapes is pretty comical.

My husband thinks we should only play tapes from her era; I got him to concede that we could also play stuff from before, as that would have been available in her youth. I did, of course, demand that he find a Credence tape. Oh, yes; we went there.

On the whole, the weekend spent thusly made me feel rather like one of my heroines getting driven around in her beau’s dashing new curricle, and suddenly all the men who are looking at them aren’t looking at her–they’re looking at the vehicle. Trust me when I say this scene happens in one of my books eventually. Whenever I get around to writing a London courtship story (versus country courtship and London marriage stories…).

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We’re playing unlimited loo? This party’s gonna be off the HOOK!

Oh, the glorious breakthroughs that happen when research comes to my rescue like the White Knight of Bridge-Gap. 

No, I have not yet finished writing The Scene. But at least I have figured out what in the hell the heroine’s brother is playing that is about to ruin them both, and knowing the specific game will add enough structure to the amorphous scene of “he loses” that I can actually get somewhere in putting it into words.

What I’m saying is, I just put boards under the back tires of my mudhogging truck and now have a ramp out of the mudpit. It’s still a long, dirty careful drive to get clear of the hole I dug myself into, but at least I’ve got a bit of traction now.

Anyway, reading multiple sources across multiple days was what really helped me decide on a game. I was intrigued by the sound of loo, but the first three descriptions of the game implied such small stakes that I didn’t see it as a viable option (plus it comes up as a parlor game in Jane Austen, how could it be the ruin of a professional gambler?). I needed a game where the bets could be anted up to astronomical heights, and was leaning toward brag. But when I sat down to write tonight, I couldn’t remember why I hadn’t liked loo and went to look up how to play it again. I chose a different site than I had gone to previously by accident, probably my fourth or fifth source on how to play loo, and it contained a brief differentiation between limited loo, in which the loo (the losing penalty) is the same as the buy-in, so the penalty for losing remains low, as does the total pot; and unlimited loo, wherein the loo is equal to the pot total, essentially increasing the stakes at a linear rate. In 11 hands the pot is ten times its initial size. There was the kind of ramping up of stakes and losses that I had been looking for!

I’ve now got the scene started. The parts that come next have progressed from utter vagueness to shifting outlines–still not completely defined and set into stone, but becoming clearer with every run through the scenario with this new information.

Now I am out of excuses. I will simply have to face the fact that this scene terrifies me to write because it is so important to the whole story, and just get on with it. Ignorance is a much more excusable roadblock than fear…even if it’s also one that can be conquered more easily.

If I start screaming, “Fezzik! Fezzik, I need you! He’s getting away from me! Fezzik, PLEASE!!!” will my muse show up to help with this one?

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Moar Research?

I think I figured out what the problem is on my scene. It’s that the escalation takes place at, during, because of a high-stakes card game. And I know almost nothing about how games were actually played 200 years ago (or now, but especially not 200 years ago).

Sigh. Yet more research that I was not expecting to have to do. First it was the London docks (which it turns out I didn’t even need, once I tossed one of the subplot villains). Then it was women in business at the time. Then it was fashions and fabrics of the year. Then it was the Season, and how it related to the calender year of this year. Then it was regiments and battles in the Napoleonic war. Now types of card games played and specific plays for them? And all of it–all of it–for minor background texture or backstory, because I am just that much of a nerd and a stickler, and I know that if the information is out there I can’t not find it in order to makde the most realistic and plausible setting for the story.

At least this will be information that definitely comes up again in future books, unlike some of it (at least as far as I can see). Still, being that I am just so ready to be DONE with this one, I pretty much feel like a meme right now.

how dismal indeed

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