Elizabeth: It’s All About the Words

In recent weeks I’ve been powering my way through the piles of books I’ve accumulated that have been languishing in my library, waiting to be read.  I have writing to do and stories to tell, but I’m also trying to follow the advice that writers need to “read widely.”  Also, my towering TBR piles (yes, there are multiple piles) have become ungainly.  It’s either get reading or build a fort out of them or something.

Some of the books, like the Daisy Dalrymple mystery stories by Carola Dunn, were definite winners that left me wondering why I hadn’t read them sooner.  Others (that will remain nameless), often freebies that I found on Amazon or via sites like Goodreads, had me wondering how they got published and whether there were editors involved (I’m guessing no for that last question in at least a few cases).

While a strong plot/story-line is critical if a book is going to work for me, word choice and word usage can really tip the scales.

The Daisy Dalrymple mysteries are set in the 1920s in Britain. The Honorable Miss Dalrymple is a “modern” woman, working as a freelance writer for Town & County magazine and encountering dead bodies on a periodic basis (22 times so far).  The author does not include swaths of description or hit the reader over the head with characters spouting facts to set the scene or the time-period. Instead, with the sparse use of period-specific word choices and a few tidbits here and there, the scene and mood are set and the story is off and running.  The portable typewriter, cocktails, bobbed hair, and mentions of the lack of men-of-a-certain-age due to the war, tell us where and when we are in a much more entertaining way than cold facts would.

As I continue to work on my Regency story, I’m spending a lot of time with word choice and conversational styles, in a way to make it feel historically accurate and to make sure there aren’t things that would jar readers.  That means, among other things, spending time making sure the words I choose to use were actually in use during the Regency.  Fortunately, Google is a great help with that since the last thing I want is to use words that are too contemporary and risk being slammed as writing “a contemporary story in Regency clothing.”

Word choice can be problematic, even if it isn’t related to the time period.  The author of the last contemporary romance I read consistently made word choices that gave me pause when I hit them.  Whether it was the constant use of “she cried” or “she yelped” when plain old “she said” would have been more appropriate, or the rampant use of “galloped” (the people galloped and the puppy even galloped, when I actually envisioned it “gamboling”), the choice of words lessened the enjoyment of an already weak story.

As a writer, word choice is kind of a no-win situation.  Just as in character naming, you can be historically accurate, but you can’t really please everyone.    The words that irritate me when I encounter them might go unnoticed by another reader and vice versa.

So, do you have any trigger words that bug you when you come across them in a story, or is it just me?

10 thoughts on “Elizabeth: It’s All About the Words

  1. “Purchase” is my pet peeve word. As in “He extended his arm to gain purchase on the railing.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that unless somebody offers me a ridiculous advance, or holds a gun to my head, I will never use that expression in any of my books. I don’t care how popular it is among historical writers. I even read it in a contemporary western romance that I was breezing through this afternoon. I was shocked! That expression needs to go the way of the dodo, IMHO.

    • I’ll have to keep any eye out for that one. I know I’ve seeen it before, but probably just read right past it. Not really a phrase you would normally hear anyone use – at least I don’t ever remembered hearing it.

      • That’s the thing…I read a blog post by someone who railed against this phrase, insisting that probably no one used it back in the day anyway, and it’s always stuck with me. There’s one particular very famous Regency author (who shall remain nameless) who uses this in EVERY. FRICKIN. BOOK. Gimme a break, please!

  2. I read a blog post ages ago by Ilona Andrews where she said she’d DNF’d a historical because she was so annoyed by the constant use of “spilled”, as in “the heroine’s hair spilled over the pillows.” I never noticed that before, but I do now.

    I can think of three pet peeves. (1) Personal scents. When the hero smells of coffee, cordite, and something uniquely himself. Grrr. I like the idea of a signature scent, but that phrase makes me foam. (2) When a character releases a breath they didn’t realize they’d been holding. And (3) when characters finally kiss/make out/make love/get together in some significant way, and part-way through one of them thinks it wasn’t enough. Pretty sure I have been guilty of (2) and (3), but I’ve been reading a lot lately, and I keep tripping over them. Never again, I swear.

    • I’m with you on the scent issue. I never used to notice it, but now I do. I’d really prefer not to think what anyone smelled like when I’m reading a historical. When I read “he smelled like leather, wet wool, and Man”, all I can think is yuck.

  3. I don’t have any specific words, but if an author overuses a word then it is definitely something that annoys me, so I’m conscious of that in my own writing and I try to mix it up.

    • I think it’s the “three” rule. Use a word once, nice. Twice, erm, I start to notice. Third time? Particularly if it’s an unusual word (see “purchase” above)? I’m ready to throw the book against the wall.

  4. I don’t get that whole smelling thing. I know writers use it because teachers always say to “use the five senses,” but you have to be REALLY CLOSE to smell anything other than BO or, say, animal dung. Coffee? You’d have to be in their face. And soap smells dissipate fast, in my experience.

    I’m not really put off by certain words (“purchase” is okay with me—sorry, Justine!), but I’m attracted to writing that has flair or uses words in fun ways. Workmanlike writing is okay, but won’t bring me back.

  5. Smell is really important to me. Before I was married, my future husband came upstairs to wake me up smelling of Nivea hand cream and fresh milk. (-: The smells still turn me on! But, I do have enough presence of mind to realize that these are very idiosyncratic. If I want to give the reader a Pavlovian reaction to these smells, I have to lay the groundwork.

    I can’t think of any words that make me cringe. (At least not today.) I do like an unusual word choice, and I really enjoy when a writer can use the same word a few times to form a motif — but it’s got to be somewhat crafted. If it seems like an accident, then that’s not very fun. I’m not very good at catching multiple usages, myself.

    I will always remember a comment that Lois McMaster Bujold made about how she screens words carefully when she’s writing stuff that’s in a society that’s pre-guns, for example. If you don’t have guns or explosives, things would not be a “blast”, nor would one “shoot off their mouths” or “tamp down their emotions”. Or something like that. Regency is a difficult period, IMO, because there are a lot of things going on in the land of science and technology that may or may not have filtered down to the slang. When I was researching my 1899 story, I was really surprised to find that things like electric doorbells and even light switches were already a thing in many houses — some rooming houses, as well. I found out so much by reading contemporary newspapers . . . .

    Anyway, I think it comes down to pleasing yourself. You can’t really be responsible for other people’s trigger words. Historically or regionally accurate is more difficult; it might be worthwhile to have it checked by a few readers who are familiar with the time period/region, but then again, if you’ve got a great story, readers might forgive you some words that are out-of-joint. And if you only have a mediocre story, the time-perfect and place-perfect words aren’t going to rescue it. (-: The problem of course is that you can fix time and place goofs with some outside authority. Fixing story-flow, though? Schroedinger’s genius is in that box — genius or doofus, depending on which reader opens up the package.

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