How to make sure the language in your historical fantasy novel is period-accurate

Illustration for article titled How to make sure the language in your historical fantasy novel is period-accurate

We love seeing the grand technological anachronisms in science fiction novels set in the past, such as Victorian or Edwardian-era steampunk or exaggerated Renaissance automata. But what if you want to keep the language in your historical novel accurate for the period? Here's a simple trick historical fantasy novelist Mary Robinette Kowal concocted to make sure the words that tumbled from her characters' lips were appropriate for the early 19th century.


When we spoke to the Milk and Honey author about her latest novel, Glamour in Glass, which is set in 1815, she told us that she composed a draft of her novel without a limited word list in mind, but afterward edited it to remove any anachronistic vocabulary. While she was still working on Glamour in Glass, however, she explained on her blog her system for flagging words that might not have existed during that time period:

I've created a list of all the words that are in the collected works of Jane Austen to use for my spellcheck dictionary. It will flag any word that she didn't use and I can then look those up to see if it was in use in 1815. It also includes some of Miss Austen's specific spellings like "shew" and "chuse."

It won't be perfect. For instance it won't flag words whose meanings have changed, like "check" or "staid" but it will be an improvement.

Kowal shares her Austen word list on her blog, and commenters over at Wondermark add that Google's Ngram Viewer shows the frequency of words over time based on all the books Google Books has compiled.

The Jane Austen Word List [Mary Robinette Kowal via Wondermark]



This is great and something I wish more authors worked on. I started reading Follet's "Pillars of Earth" when in the second page he wrote about medieval peasants coming into the city from the "suburbs." The concept did not exist until the 19th century. Threw me completely out of the time period and told me that if he did not care enough to learn about the history he was writing in, I did not care enough to read his novel.