Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Give or take a year?

by | January 25, 2010 | 3 comments

Two of the challenges of writing historical romance and fiction are knowing when things were invented and word choice. When words or phrases came into common usage can differ depending on the source.

Obvious anachronisms show not only poor research but a lack of attention to detail and can pull a reader right out of your story. On the other hand, never using contractions and restricting yourself entirely to words from your period can make your writing come across as stilted. Often the author needs to rely on his/her best judgment as to how much leeway he/she can accept.

Will an editor reject you because you use words a few decades after your story is set?  Probably not. But lest you think specific words don’t matter… a New York Times bestseller, RITA-winning author kindly read one of my manuscripts set in late medieval England. I thought I had vetted it for “too modern” language, but she circled a few words that sounded inappropriate to her, even though they might have actually been in use at the time.

Stopping writing to look up every contemporary term that goes on the page can be frustrating and slow my progress. I don’t want to interrupt my flow, so usually I catch any word choice/invention issues while revising.

The earlier your story is set, the greater the limitations. Sometimes there’s a perfect word to describe what’s in your head that simply didn’t exist at the time of your story. Once I really wanted to use the word bluestocking, but learned that it didn’t come into use until the mid to late 1700’s. On the other hand, sometimes you can use the fact that something hasn’t yet been invented or a new invention to add detail and realism to your setting, or even to enhance plot or characterization. For example, the way your hero/heroine react the first time they use a fork could be quite amusing.

A Few Favorite Resources:

Brohaugh, William, English Through the Ages , Writer’s Digest Books, 1998.
When I look up a word in the index, I know if it’s listed on a page higher than 99, it came into use after 1500, which is too late for me. Index tells you the page, but finding your specific word on that page can be difficult since the entries aren’t in alphabetical order.

Coredon, Christopher, A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases, D.S. Brewer, 2004, Reprinted 2005.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, Medieval Wordbook, Facts on File, Inc., 1996

Both great for things I’d never heard of before but want to use. However, can be difficult to tell when terms came into use. Cosman offers a subject index, Coredon does not.


  1. Linda LaRoque

    So true, Paty. It's hard to keep those modern words in their proper place. I imagine it's particularly difficult if you're writing is in the Medieval period, a time period I haven't tackled.

  2. Kathryn Albright

    I've had to tackle this type of research and editing, but since I write western historicals, I think I have it a little easier in the research department (also since I live in the US.) Writing about another country AND another time is beyond me–at least at this place in my career. However, I love to read regencies and medievals so I am glad there are writers like you who embrace the challange! (Love Robin Hood and King Arthor stories.)

  3. Michele Ann Young

    Ruth, how true. Regency readers are absolutely on top of this. And it is surprising how some modern sounding words were in use during the era, but they just won't fly.

    Still I do love writing about the past, so back to hitting those research books.




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