I used the word wench in Ella Enchanted and Fairest, but I’ve abandoned it, possibly because one of my teachers didn’t like it, possibly because it has a bit of a fake Ye Olde Sweete Shoppe feel to it. She didn’t like lass either, felt it sounded Scottish. Lately I’ve substituted girl. Simple. Timeless.
Timeless is what I’m going for in my fantasies. Nobody is going to say LOL or even laugh out loud, dude. Even the phrase going for sounds too modern in my mind’s ear, although the expression may have been around in Chaucer’s day.
Timeless doesn’t mean formal. I’m copacetic (not a word I would use in a fantasy fairy tale) with short sentences and even sentence fragments. I want my characters to feel real, to have thoughts that we can understand today, although most people in actual distant history may not have had inner lives much like ours. I was particularly aware of this when I wrote Ever, which is set in a fantasy version of ancient Mesopotamia. I did a fair amount of research, and the lives of people then were vastly different from ours. If you or I could time travel back then and were imbued with the language, we would still be likely to misunderstand events, actions, meaning, intention at every turn. Mesopotamian medicine, for example, makes clear that ancient Mesopotamians lacked a modern notion of causality. On the other hand, they were marvelous mathematicians.
Now take a deep breath and prepare to enter the wonderful world of word geeks. Some of you may already live here. I invite all of you to pitch a tent.
When a word seems too modern for a middle ages sort of world, I look it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the OED, which is expensive but which might be in your local library. The OED is the authority on etymology, the history of a word. It provides the first-known written appearance of the word and a selection of later appearances - for each meaning of the word. I just looked up the word blue and was astonished at all the subtleties of meaning. Blue as a color first showed up in writing in 1300. Blue in the sense of feeling unhappy, to my surprise, goes all the way back to 1550.
In an age of general illiteracy, a word may have been used long before anyone wrote it down. Today, on the other hand, a word could appear in print before anyone spoke it.
I cannot find a really old word for funny. Ha-ha funny (as opposed to peculiar funny) dates from 1756. The earliest synonyms for funny began to be used in the sixteenth century, which isn’t yesterday but isn’t medieval either. I’m sure people had senses of humor then, but whatever they called it isn’t in use anymore, or I missed it. Of course I use the word funny, and any of the others, because they don’t ring new in my ears.
The OED has come out with a thesaurus, which I’m salivating over, but it’s not in CD form yet. It’s in two huge volumes, and I’d guess the print is as tiny as bacteria.
If you don’t have easy access to the OED, your ordinary paper dictionary won’t have space for etymology, but there are pretty good free online alternatives. This site is very good: http://dictionary.reference.com/. Once you’re there, ignore the ad and type in the word you’re interested in and you’ll get to a new screen with the definitions. Below them you’ll find word origins for various meanings of the word. There’s also this online etymology dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/, which doesn’t have every word but is still helpful.
Please don’t think I check the age of every word I use. I only look when a word feels too recent. Sometimes I’m right. Often I’m wrong and astonished.
As far as reading level goes, I don’t worry much about that. We are doing kids a kindness when we introduce unfamiliar words. As a child my vocabulary grew through reading (still does). If I came across a word I didn’t know, I asked a parent or looked it up or, most often, guessed at the meaning through context. By the time I’d seem a hard word several times in different books I’d sussed out a working meaning.
Of course you don’t want your writing to be impenetrable, so don’t pack your sentences with abstruse, recondite, cryptic, esoteric morphemes! (I had to go to the dictionary for some of those.) Anyway, the excitement in a story is more important than vocabulary level. If your story has hooked your reader, he will persevere even if you lob a few morphemes his way. Ella Enchanted was recommended as a book for reluctant readers despite its sometimes tough vocabulary.
You also don’t want to throw in anachronistic (not of the time) technology. Obviously no cell phones in the middle ages. Messengers undoubtedly, but what else? For example, when did people start to use carrier pigeons? I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure I could find out online in a minute or two.
There are daily-life books that cover just about every period. For my mystery novel, I primarily used three sources: Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies; Daily Life in the Middle Ages by Paul B. Newman; Castle by David Macaulay, a kids’ book and the best of the three in its limited topic, the construction and architecture of a thirteenth century castle. All of these are fine (if not fascinating) for readers from upper elementary on up. Anything I couldn’t find in my books I supplemented with online searches. And, since I was writing fantasy and not historical fiction, I felt free to invent when I couldn’t discover a fact or when the fact didn’t please me or suit the story. Still, it is quite wonderful to have enough of a sense of a long-ago place to be able to imagine dressing for the day, walking down a street, entering a house, shopping at a market.
Here’s a prompt:
Without much research, maybe just online sources, write a scene at a meal that includes family and guests. Include description and dialogue. The topic of conversation can be love or politics or duty of a child to a parent or anything else. Write a scene from two or more of the choices below. You can introduce fantasy elements, but set the scene during these time periods:
• pre-history or the very beginning of written history;
• ancient Egypt;
• a non-Western society before Europeans arrive;
• before the sixteenth century;
• during the late nineteenth century;
• the 1950s;
Notice how your language changes as you time travel. Have fun, and save what you write!