Don’t be an Ejaculator

A couple of years ago, I was on a panel discussing dialog.  What? It happens. Sometimes people pity me I’m a respected, highly sought-after expert in my field. Anyway, one of the authors on the panel told the audience to avoid using bookish dialog tags, and someone asked what he meant by that. There was a momentary pause, and my good friend, author Lou J Berger, held up a hand dramatically and shouted:

“‘The front of my pants are wet,’ he ejaculated.”

We lost about five minutes of panel time due to uncontrollable, wall-shaking laughter. Needless to say the panel went downhill after that was fruitful and very productive.

Lou’s reply was hysterical, but it was also dead-on. There is no need for that sort of ridiculousness. In fact, 90 percent of the time, “said” is the right call. You know why? Because I said so. And you know why else? Because almost any other dialog tag that you use colors the novel with opinion. Or tells the reader how you want them to feel. Said is a fact. It is objective. It is transparent and seamless. To many of you, it may seem a bit plain or repetitive, but it’s not. “Said” fades into the background, which is the point, as I mention below…

And another thing…

Dialog tags aren’t always necessary. In fact, they are an interruption, and should be taken out whenever possible. If you write a sentence like this:


“How dare you steal the Eternal Llama of Youth!” Sir Galahad said, drawing his sword.

Then go back and change it to this:

“How dare you steal the Eternal Llama of Youth!” Sir Galahad drew his sword.

And consider writing a new story.

Oh, and if you do this…

“Bow, interloper! Bow to the Llama of Eternal Youth!” He hissed infuriatedly!

I’m a huge believer in Elmore Leonard’s fourth rule of good writing (the third rule talks about not using any tag other than “said,” incidentally). And that rule is: Never use an adverb to modify a dialog tag. So, if you type a sentence like this:

“Before this day is through, I will steal all seven of the Llamas of Power!” He said angrily.

…then don’t worry about deleting it or editing it in any way. Simply take your laptop into the landfill and throw it in whatever area is set aside for toxic waste. Buy a new laptop and start again, free from the contamination of that line. Jokes aside, using a word like “angrily” to modify said is worse than using a bookish tag like “he regurgitated,” or the like. But it still sucks. So don’t be an ejaculator.

’nuff said.









Lessons Learned: The Reader’s Lullabye

I want to start putting up little snippets of the things I’ve learned while writing. Stuff that will probably only appeal to new writers. I’d also like to play beach volleyball on Mars. Hopefully these “Lessons Learned” will come more often than my volleyball matches.

Writing should be efficient and quick. The reader needs to slip through your story as if she or he were on a waterslide. The problem, of course, is that sometimes you have approximately fifty seven things to present to the reader in each paragraph. (Well, fifty eight if you weave subliminal manifestos in your sentences like I do). These fifty seven or so things are complex thoughts. Things that could really be spread over an entire page. Two pages. Dammit, I need an entire novel to talk about these fifty seven damn things that I’m trying to tell you. Can we just Skype instead of you reading my book? Because I really don’t think I can get these ideas across in a tiny little novel.

But, as novelists, we must. We must. That is the job of a novelist.

Our job is not to tell a story. Anyone can tell a story.

Our job is not to dazzle with prose–that is the job of a poet. Or a politician.

Our job is to present the reader with an experience. Our job is the simple task of carrying a 200 pound reader on our back and flying them to a distant place. Our job is to put them into a dream state on that journey, except the dream is our dream, one that we have crafted with meticulous care. And the trick… the trick is to keep them from finding out they are dreaming.

How do we do this? Simple. By not letting them know we are there. There are a thousand ways a writer can intrude on his story, but the one I’m talking about today is boredom. We cannot bore the reader awake. We need to keep our readers so absorbed in the dream that they don’t have time to worry about that uncomfortable shoulder blade pressing against their butt-cheek.

But sometimes, especially in fantasy stories, we have to describe something. Setting is important in fantasy, and without it, you just have weird historical fiction.So how do we provide a description without waking up our little dreamer? With butchery, friends. With hard, pipe-hitting butchery and dismemberment.

Here’s a passage I wrote just now, in its original form (apologies for any grammar mistakes or typos):

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foothills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”

So, at the start of that section, I have three paragraphs of description, and this set off all sorts of sirens and a woman’s computerized voice saying, “Warning. Warning. Warning. Warning…”

Muted sun. Pale walls. *yawn*  Hill. Towers. *snort. Smack lips*  Five rings. More sun. “What… what am I doing up here? Who the hell’s back am I on?”

Yeah, mission not accomplished. I don’t think the passages were horribly unwieldy, but I am paranoid about waking the reader. So, I made a subtle change to keep the dream unbroken:

The sun, dimmed by the ring shadows and reddened by smoke from a farmer’s distant field, seethed like a madman’s glare. To the east, the dark smudge of the Vruga mountains rose in the smoldering daylight. The Tiburcian hoof beats rang on the stony Northern Trail, leaving ghosts that seemed to bounce and tumble behind. And, up ahead, a stony mound rose from the plains.
The walled city rested on a hill within a loop of the Ballestra. A clutter of tightly-packed daub structures huddled within the winding curtain walls, climbing the sides of the hill. The muted sun washed rose across the white walls, the roof tiles a dull, burnt crimson.
“I thought we were going to ride in the foorhills,” Ermenguille peered around the side of the carriage, as if armed men might appear behind them at any time.
“We will,” Tercero replied. “But there are few villages and no food in those hills. We need to buy enough to last us until we can cross into Corsyn.”
At the center of the city—rising like a shard of glass from an ant hill—was the Cathedral of the Guardian. Five circles of shining towers and chapels, each soaring higher than the one enclosing it. And, mounted upon the highest of the towers, were five silver rings facing north and south. From this distance, they looked like a single circle, glinting in the shadow of the true rings of Cerule.

Not fancy. Not glamorous. But something that breaks up the infodump with dialog. I might still cut a little more of the description. But if I don’t, I think I can still save the dream. If the reader starts snorting and waking, then hopefully the dialog will server as a lullabye.

Okay. That’s the snippet for tonight. Sleep well, my readers. And pleasant dreams.


Peers out from under the covers…

Yeah, no updates for a bit. My apologies. Life’s been a bit of storm these last couple of months, so I’ve been clinging to driftwood and trying to stay afloat. Just wanted to give a quick update on a few things…

Emaculum Audio Book

First and foremost, I wanted to announce that, after a year of false starts, Emaculum (book three of The Scourge) will be getting an audio version (finally!). Those who follow me are probably aware that I had some problems with deadlines with the first voice actor. It became so frustrating that I was actually thinking of doing it myself, but I have no recording equipment and I don’t have the time right now to learn how to do it properly (30 hours at the very least to record and edit it). I was despairing about the situation when the captain of my Street Team (The Knights of Calas) stepped up in an *epic* way and told me he would do it. And so, I present to you, Lynn Roberts, knight of Calas and hero of the Emaculum audio book! I’ll have a separate post about Lynn and his journey into audiobook recording soon. He’s great with accents, but he will be reading the book without an English accent. It might be a bit surprising when you first start listening, but I’m sure his powerful voice will get you into the story right away.

The Madness of Valatriste

I have 30 pages left to write in my current work in progress. Tentatively titled The Madness of Valatriste. It’s a fantasy with Spanish and French flavorings, lots of dueling, and a main character that is sanity-challenged. I’m having a great time writing it, but it has become a bit epic. I’ll have this one sorted soon and hopefully have my agent sell it to someone early next year.

Tristan Novella

The promised Tristan novella will be the next thing I work on, barring contractual obligations. Sorry for the delay on this one!

Viral Marketing?

So, someone put together a few graphics for The Scourge trilogy–just images with quotes from the books on them. If you are so inclined, feel free to paste them around on the internet for some viral type marketing. Just click through for the full-size version if you need it. If people pin them to Pinterest/Instagram/Facebook and such, they might gain some traction and help with the books. I appreciate any sharing of these!

As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments or drop me an email. I’ll be back soon with some more updates and interviews. Thanks again for your support!



“You … you … skelm!” And other problems.

A quick vent-post about the problems I often encounter with language in historical fiction.

Those of you who read my previous post on historical language know that this is an ongoing thing with me.  But tonight, I was looking for a word that means ‘scoundrel’ but isn’t ‘scoundrel,’ because ‘scoundrel’ is a 16th century word.

So I settle on “rogue.” But Rogue is also 16th century. How about “ruffian?” Yeah, the 16th century had all the good words.

Eventually, I find “caitiff” which is a 14th century word for “scoundrel,” but is about as lively as an anvil. “You’ll not be paid a penny, you caitiff!” Doesn’t have quite the ring I was looking for. And even if I use it, half of my readers will stop, look at the camera (am I the only one who’s life is followed by movie cameras?), and say, “huh?” And the other half will just skip over it and silently curse me. No. the search must continue.

Skelm! Perfect! It’s got a nice Saxon bite to it and sounds absolutely perf… oh. Curse you, 16th century! Curse you to hell!

*mental note: My next novel will be set in the 16th century*

So, after far too long spent searching (so long, in fact, that I can’t really remember why I’m looking for the damned word), I stumble upon “Poltroon.” Good. Sounds like an insult. “You won’t get a penny! You will get justice, you poltroon!” I like it. Readers won’t know what it means, but they’ll get the gist. Think of Jesse from Breaking Bad going, “Oh, snap! He called you a damned poltroon!” In fact, I may start calling people poltroons. Help me out. Let’s bring back poltroon. Start using it in ever day life. Let’s see how long it takes for a celebrity to use it. Um… where was I? Poltroon! I check the date…Yes! It works. Happy day! It only took 20 minutes and a venting blog post about language to find one! Wait a minute. Wait a damned minute…

…in the 13th century, “poltroon” was spelled “poultron.” It was only spelled “poltroon” in the — say it with me — 16th century. Sigh. The gangsta-snap, you-been-dissed quality of “poltroon” gets completely lost when it’s “poultron.” It has that sophisticated Frenchiness that defies street cred. “Ahh, non, non. You will not get a franc! You will get zee justeese, you poultron!”

Can I just use the 16th century spelling? Of course I can. Will I be accurate? Not really. But does it really matter? Unless I write the entire book in Middle English, it will never be 100% accurate. And God knows I’ve done my homework on this word.

I’m going to use it. Damn it all to hell, I’m using it. And when some poltroon decides to post a public tweet saying: “@robertocalas, in Emaculum, you used word poltroon, but in 13th c. waz actually spelled, poultron. just saying.” I am going to call them a filthy, damnable skelm.

Although it will have to mean filthy in the physically-unclean sort of way, because the “morally unclean or obscene” meaning of that word wasn’t around until …Yeah. You know the rest.




Surprise! And other tools for writers.

Hello everyone. I know things have been silent on my end for a bit, but I have been hard at work on Emaculum. I’m on Episode 6 at the moment, so only two more to go before it gets released into the wild. Since I’ve been writing and thinking about writing quite a bit lately, I thought I’d talk about one of the most powerful tools writers have in their arsenal: Surprise.

***A word of warning: The first part of this piece has a spoiler for The Scourge. And the second has a spoiler for Nostrum. Proceed at your own peril.***

Not that sort of eargasm.

Have you ever had an eargasm? You know, that moment when you’re listening to a song and suddenly get chills? It could be a particular lyric, or a lilt of the singer’s voice. But often, it’s an unexpected change in tempo or pitch. A change-up, so to speak, that catches us by surprise.

Writing is very similar. In fact, pretty much all artistic media operates on similar principles. An artist should strive to keep his or her work fresh. To give his or her audience something new. If you’ve read my previous post on writing with flourish, then you’ll remember I spoke of Maximus, from Gladiator.

“I will give them something they’ve never seen before.”

Maximus should have been a writer, because that’s exactly what writers need to strive for. Anyone can write a story. But readers don’t just want to read a story. They want to be entertained. They want something they’ve never seen before. They want to be kept off balance, never knowing exactly what will happen next. Never allowed to get too comfortable. As George R. R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame) knows all too well, if you surprise and shock your readers, then they will truly fear for your protagonist.

But surprise is not just a way to scare the bejeesus out of readers. It’s also a way to keep the story fresh and fast paced and entertaining. I’ll use a few examples from my books, as I usually do, because I know them best and I’m too lazy to find passages in books by authors I love.

So here, first of all, is a scene from The Scourge, where Sir Edward, Sir Morgan, and Sir Tristan run up against an ocean of plaguers and Tristan gets caught in the horde. Edward thinks his friend has been torn apart. But the guilt and sorrow give way to joy when he sees Tristan rise up and climb into a tree. Cue the happy music. Smiles all around. But it’s precisely at those moments, when the sun is shining and the angels are singing, when surprise works best. You have to gouge the needle across the record so the happy music screeches to a halt:

I watch as Tristan pulls himself from the saddle and wraps his legs around the limb while the afflicted swipe at him. I watch as he flattens himself against the bottom of the branch. And I laugh as he gives two fingers to the mass of plaguers that reach for him and rip apart his horse. I must have kept my eyes open for too long because I feel them tearing up. I wipe at them and laugh again.

Tristan is alive.

“Stay in the tree!” I scream it as loudly as I can manage. Tristan rolls himself up onto the bough and sits. He can’t see me so he leans low to look through the downy branches and blows me a kiss. “Stay in the tree, you idiot!” I try not to smile as I shout to him. “We’ll come back for you. You’ll be safe in the tree!”

He holds up a thumb and I think he nods. And before I can respond, God smites the earth.

That’s what it sounds like. An explosion so unearthly that for a moment I am certain God has come down to earth to finish the job he started with this plague. The sound echoes across the hills so that I can’t tell where it came from. Plaguers near the willow fly into the air like daisies chopped by a sickle. One of them is split into pieces and each of the pieces flies in a different direction. Something skims off the grass with a resonant thud, then slams high into the willow branches.

There is silence. Even the plaguers stop moving.

Surprise! The story was settling into a happy lull and the danger faded. But fading danger equals fading tension, and tension is the heartbeat of any story. I actually tried to write that scene without the smiting stuff. Edward and Morgan were going to regroup and figure out how to get Tristan out of the tree, and possibly talk to the men and women they rescued. But the scene started to feel flat. And that’s another time when surprise can be used very effectively — when the story seems to be slowing down, or when the rest of the scene is becoming too predictable and not interesting enough. If your story is not interesting, you are dead in the water. Be anything you want as a writer, but never be boring. Surprise will often help you inject life into a slow scene. I think it was Raymond Chandler who said it best: “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Here’s another surprise from the Scourge books. This one is in Nostrum (book 2). Everyone knows Tristan is a wise-ass, but he’s often the voice of reason, as well. Readers begin to expect him to provide that voice of reason. And when readers get too comfortable with something, it’s time to surprise them. In this scene, Edward and Tristan have found a group of villagers throwing a woman into a river. They say they are sacrificing her to a “dragon” that has been threatening the area. Their actions enrage Tristan, who enters lecture-mode.

Tristan looks at the bound woman in the river and raises his hands. He turns toward the crowd.

“When will you people stop acting like sheep? Your priest tells you there is a dragon in the area, so you allow him to tie up your women and throw them into the river? Is that what Christians do these days?”

He points to the woman in the Stour.

“This river is probably tidal. You will go home and, during the night, the river will rise and she will drown. Her body will be carried out to sea. You will come back in the morning and she will not be here, and this priest will tell you a dragon took her. And you will believe him, won’t you? And you will allow him to murder more of your women! If you have any left, that is. Do you people have no minds? Do you truly think a dragon simply swoops down and … Satan’s hairy cock! Holy Christ almighty! House of fucking Gemini!”

Tristan staggers backward as a dragon bursts from the forest and roars. I am too stunned to react, and so is everyone else. The dragon leaps into the river, hisses, then snatches up the woman in its toothy maw.

Surprise! This works on a few different levels, I think. The first is that, this time, Tristan is not the voice of reason. He is dead wrong, and so the events have defied the readers’ expectations. This also works, I think, because Tristan gets what he deserves for his smugness and preachiness. He often ridicules people of faith for preaching and trying to push their views on others, and here he is, doing the same thing. And it comes back to bite him. Literally. And lastly, I think it works in a rather obvious way; a goddamn dragon just leaped out of the forest in medieval England. Surprise!

Okay, so it’s not *truly* a dragon, but the reader doesn’t know that at the time. And so it’s a shock. Which electrifies the reader. It’s a change in pitch. A change-up. An eargasm for the mind. And hopefully it keeps the readers wanting more.

Oh, and one last thing, like any tool in the writer’s quiver, don’t overuse it. Surprise is just an occasional spark. A dash of red among the grays and greens. The singer’s voice breaking at the climax of the song. God smiting the earth on a happy summer day. If you do it too often, the reader then expects a surprise. And it’s hard to surprise a reader expecting a surprise. Except maybe not surprising the reader at all. And a story without surprises is like a loveless marriage between reader and writer.

And there are no eargasms in a loveless marriage.


My Writing Process–Blog Tour

So i’m taking part in a round-robin blog tour in which writers talk about how they write what they write. It’s a lot of fun, and I want to thank fellow historical writer Adam Haviaras for inviting me. Adam has guest posted here before. He is a ridiculously well-schooled historian and archaeologist and his wonderful writing reflects this. Check out his blog and his books if you love historical fantasy.

Now, about my writing process . . .


What am I working on?
At the moment, I am writing the third and final book in The Scourge trilogy. I’m having a great time with this book and I think it might be the best of the three.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
 I have a hard time speaking in broad terms about the genre of my work. I have two series, one that is epic fantasy and another that is historical fantasy. Both series are gritty and as realistic as I could make them. There are no unicorns in either book. Um. Okay, there’s a unicorn in the Scourge, but not a real one. There are no mages hurling fireballs and no elves. Definitely no elves. My work tends to be grounded in history, with bits of the paranormal here and there. The protagonists are usually disillusioned and dispirited, but with a fierce, burning passion that drives them ever onward. There is usually a bit of romance, and many times a bit of violence, and always a healthy dose of black humor.

Why do I write what I do?
I love history, particularly medieval history. I think contemporary people are boring. We dress in dull clothes. We talk about boring things. We have no strong convictions or traditions. Even our wars are boring. People in the Middle Ages didn’t have Wal-Mart or Movember, or even National Secretaries Day. They had craftsmen selling their wares. Their mustaches and beards were a lifelong thing. And a secretary was someone you entrusted with a deep, dark and powerful secret. Medieval soldiers wore armor and stared into the eyes of their enemies as they killed them. Women wore the most beautiful clothing in history and plotted with the best of conspirators. Politicians argued over which of them would lead the first rank of men into the enemy lines. Men fought for honor. Hell, men *had* honor (some men anyway). And horses. They all rode horses, for God’s sake. How can you not write about that sort of time period?

My muse cries when I don’t listen.

How does your writing process work?
I have to have inspiration to write. Something has to kindle the firewood in my brain. A good opening line. An interesting character. An image. The best of my works write themselves. The idea sustains itself. The firewood comes from thin air and the story burns like a furnace. The worst require work. Lots and lots of work.

I start most stories in the same way these days. I get an idea and think about it for a time. The protagonist is important. I need to know what type of person he or she is, and what he or she is trying to accomplish. Then, I throw everything I can at them, to keep them from accomplishing their goal. I come up with a general outline and maybe a scene outline, and then start writing. Sometimes half the scenes I planned actually make it into the book. Other times, only one or two make it.

If the story is sound, the motivation strong and the conflicts believable, then the story will tell itself. You have to listen while you write. Sometimes you step off the path, and the story will tell you to come back. If you don’t listen, you will get lost. If you do listen, you will find your story. Yeah, that’s really a vague and cheesy answer, isn’t it? But there’s truth in it. If you think about the story, really think, the answers will present themselves. The more you listen, the more ideas will come to you. Think about your story in your car. At the grocery store. In the shower. Odd things will pop into your head and you will kick at them to see if they are solid. And all those little, random ideas will come together in your novel in a way that you could never have thought of just sitting at your computer. I could talk about this for days, but I won’t. Just listen. That’s the most important part of writing. Listen. Yoda voice: Listen, you must.

Next week, my friends and fellow 47North writers, Richard Ellis Preston, Mark T. Barnes and Joseph Brassey will continue this blog tour. (I will host Joseph’s post here). Here’s all you need to know about them:

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk. Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. Richard currently resides in California.

Mark Barnes was born in Sydney, Australia, in September of 1966. A strong athlete, he was also drawn to the arts at a young age, penning his first short story as a seven-year-old. He worked in finance and advertising before establishing himself in IT services management. Currently he owns and operates a freelance organizational change consultancy. In 2005, when Mark was selected to attend the Clarion South residential short story workshop, he began to write with the intention of making it more than a hobby. Since that time, Mark has published a number of short stories, worked as a freelance script editor, and has driven creative consultancy for a television series.

Joseph Brassey lives in the Pacific Northwest with his wife, son, and two cats. In his spare time, he trains in, and teaches, medieval martial arts to members of the armed forces. He has lived on both sides of the continental United States and has worked everywhere from a local newspaper to the frameshop of a crafts store to the smoke-belching interior of a house-siding factory with questionable safety policies.


Can Language in Any Historical Novel Truly Be Authentic?

My historical fantasy novels are riddled with anachronistic speech.

There I’ve said it. But you know what? So are everyone else’s. Writing a medieval novel using only the language from the middle ages (even limited to dialog), would be asinine. (I had no idea asinine only had one S. Go figure). No one would understand a book written that way. I understand adding medieval flavor to a book. I get that. I do a lot of that myself. And I understand making an effort to avoid expressions that are too modern, another goal of mine. But let’s face it, we aren’t going to write a book in Old English or even Middle English. And most writers don’t know enough about the language of that time period to make a convincing stab at it. My argument is that historical language should yield to clarity.

Look at it this way. I read a period book recently that had all the characters speaking with thines and thous, saying huzza and lavishing accolades upon one another.

There are some authors who really try for that medieval flavor. And I applaud that. I try to add a taste of the middle ages to my writing as well.


But if an author tries to be historically accurate by using words like huzza and accolades, then they have failed. More to the point, very few people are really well-versed in the language of the middle ages. So by all means, try to sprinkle medieval seasoning on your mutton, but don’t ruin the meal with it.

Writing a medieval novel using only the language from that time period, would be asinine. No one would understand it.

Take the word huzza. It’s an old favorite at medieval festivals and gaming conventions, but it has nothing to do with the middle ages. Huzza came into use in the late 16th century, by sailors. The word thou is tossed around a lot in medieval novels and, though it was certainly used in the middle ages, it became a sort of insult when using it to address anyone except your close family or your lover. A tiny historical distinction that could put a glaring hole in the accuracy of your book.

Yes, I know. Just two examples. I have more. But I want to state my case here. The people who argue that medieval novels should have dialog reflective of the medieval period usually do so out of a misplaced sense of historical accuracy. When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century. Warlord wasn’t used until 1856.

If a writer has her 12th century minstrel nod to the princess, she has made two historical errors. Minstrel wasn’t used until the 13th century, and princess wasn’t around until the late 14th. Knights couldn’t charge into the fray until the 16th century (fray:14th, charge:16th). Any historical writer who has a character nod, should make sure the character is in (at least) the 15th century, when the word was first used. Want your farmer to pet his cow? Better make sure he’s in the 19th century (Famer:16th, Pet: 19th).

When a 14th century knight asks his squire to “Bring me mine warhorse!” he is inaccurate twice: Mine (as in my) was no longer used after the 13th century. And the word warhorse wasn’t used until the 17th century.

But surely there are some blue-chip medieval terms that all historical writers can use, no? I mean, what’s a medieval action story without guards, right? Well, just as long as it’s a 15th century story, because that’s when the word came into use in English. And a knight should be allowed to brandish his sword, shouldn’t he? Only if the knight lived in the mid-14th century or later. The list goes on:

Stop: Mid-15th
Field (as in field of war): 16th
Melee: 1640s (it meant to mingle before that)
Road: 1590s
Groggy: 1770 (and it meant drunk at first)
Cemetery: Late 14th
Hello: 1883
Walk: Late 14th
Shout (as in give a shout): Late 14th
Haggle: 1600s
Rest (as in, rest on something): Mid-14th

Okay, so writers may use some words that are not accurate to the period. But surely we should stay away from words we know aren’t accurate. Modern sounding words obviously don’t belong in a period piece. I mean, you wouldn’t want your knight calling out, “Hey!” right? Or using words like baboon, or calendar or susurration?  In truth, hey and calendar were around in the 13th century. And susurration was around in the 14th. And there are many others

You see, when writing a historical novel, period speech is the last thing you should worry about. The reader knows that you are translating. You are providing a version of the text that is understandable to your reader. It’s the same way with movies. Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. Often, they simply have the characters speak a little of their language, then break into English and it’s understood that they are still speaking their language. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I can hear grumbling out there, and I know I risk being misunderstood. I am not saying that your historical novel should read like a James Patterson book. The reassuring cadence and diction of medieval speech is part of why we read these types of novels. And I think writers should strive for that. I work hard to avoid using words that I know were not around in the time period I am writing in. I do not use expressions/figures of speech that were not around in their day. But how can contorted would my story be if I couldn’t use the word road? Or stop? Or shout?

Directors may have the actors speak in a different language, but there are subtitles right there for you to read. It’s the same with writers. We are the subtitles.

I try to give my characters the flavor of medieval speech, while making sure that readers won’t stumble. Some people have said that my characters sound too modern when they speak; I wish they knew how religiously I check my word usage, and how hard I work to balance accuracy with readability. Do my characters say things in a way that wouldn’t have been said in their time period? Hell yeah. I know that my book would be completely incomprehensible to a person from the 14th century.

But then again, so would any other historical novel.