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Friday, August 20, 2010

Our Guest: Author Leigh Michaels

Our guest blogger today is author Leigh Michaels. Leigh is the author of nearly 100 books, including contemporary novels, historical novels, and non-fiction, with more than 35 million copies in print. Six of her books have been finalists in RWA’s RITA contest. She has received two Reviewer’s Choice awards from Romantic Times magazine. Her newest books, coming from Sourcebooks, are historical romance novels set in Regency London. The Mistress’ House will be published in February 2011 and Just One Season In London in July 2011.

She is the author of On Writing Romance, published by Writers Digest Books. She teaches romance writing online at Gotham Writers’ Workshop (www.writingclasses.com) and has taught at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and at writers workshops across the Midwest. She is currently an adjunct professor in the school of communications at the University of Iowa. Her website is www.leighmichaels.com.

Welcome, Leigh!

All my life, I’ve enjoyed reading historical romances, from the moment I discovered Jane Eyre on my grandmother’s bookshelf and fell in love with Mr. Rochester. When I found Georgette Heyer, I thought I was in heaven. When romance publishers took a turn toward the Regency period, I read historicals as an escape from writing contemporary romance. (I got the same feel-good payoff as I did from chocolate, but with fewer calories.)

I followed up my historical fiction habit by reading history, social commentary, diaries, and period literature. So when I started writing Regency-era historicals, I felt reasonably well informed about the Regency period – the etiquette, the language, the manners, the food, the titles. I’m not fool enough to think I know it all, of course, but I did believe I was alert and knowledgeable enough to recognize potential pitfalls in time to look them up.

It came as a bit of a shock, therefore, when I got the copy-edited manuscript of my first Regency historical and realized how many of the phrases and terms I’d thought were ancient were not used until well after the Regency period. Here are a few of them, and the dates when the authorities in the dictionary business say they first appeared:

brandy snifter – 1844

pick-me-up – 1867

footloose – 1873

sadist – 1888 (I’d have sworn the Marquis de Sade was Georgian, not Victorian, so it never occurred to me to look him up to make certain. Color me red-faced.)

hairstyle – 1913

French doors – 1917

love nest – 1919

hideaway – 1926

pablum – 1948 (Okay, I admit this one really hurts. I was off by a hundred and thirty years?)

My ego is wounded and my self-esteem has slipped... But at least I knew enough not to let my Regency heroine use ego and self-esteem to describe her state of mind!

Now it’s your turn... In your reading, what anachronisms have you discovered in historical novels? Are there any modern-day references that you know perfectly well don’t belong in your historical, but you still have to struggle to avoid using them? Please share.


  1. Welcome to the Lady Scribes, Leigh. Thanks for taking the time out of your day to share your wisdom. I can't think of any anachronisms. With me, it's usually the other way around. I'll research a word to use it appropriately (like Yank instead of Yankee) and the readers will tell me it sounds too modern for my era.

  2. I can't think of anything off hand, except when I was writing my current MS, also a Regency. I used the term "Miss Prunes and Prisms" and Julie called me on it. Sure enough, in researching the term, I found it was used by Dickens in "Little Dorrit"--a few decades after the Regency. Thanks Julie for catching that one!

  3. I have the worst time trying to come up with alternatives to "unconscious." The word existed in the Regency, but it didn't mean the same thing as it does today. "Faint" might be OK, but what if it's your hero who's fallen unconscious? It sounds pretty girly to say he fainted.

    "Anyway" in the sense of "irregardless" is another one. I see that all the time in historical books, but it didn't come into use before 1859 according to the dictionary.

    Although I think there's a certain amount of wiggle room with the dictionary dates. A word might be used in common parlance for several years before it makes it into the dictionary. I think when you start looking up dates, you can probably assume a ten-year cushion.

  4. Mmm, I use "French doors" in my Regencies, and had no idea it was such a modern term!

    I used to work at a place that had the entire zillion-volume OED available, and it was fun to go check to see when words were first recorded. Of course, as Aislinn mentioned, it takes a little while before the dictionary acknowledges their usage, especially if it's slang. But I feel like I have to be closer than 100 years! LOL


  5. In the early 1800's, "unconscious" was the equivalent of "unaware," yes? Hardly the same thing as passing out from a shock!

    The first hurdle for me is knowing which words to go look up. Just because it's been used in other historical fiction doesn't mean it was used correctly, and just because it feels old doesn't mean it is. Still, I could spend all day trolling through the dictionary and not write anything new.

    I do think Aislinn's right about wiggle room -- the dictionary often lists the first *published* usage which can vary quite a bit from when the word was created or first took on a particular meaning.

    Thank heaven for good copy editors -- especially Sarah at Sourcebooks Casablanca who kept me from making a fool of myself with pablum, etc.

  6. How amazing. Some of these words I wouldn't have thought were out of the Regency era. I've been writing historicals for at least 15 years and researched for almost that long as well. In one of my very first historical crit groups, one of the ladies was writing a Medieval. When her characters greeted each other, they'd say "Hello". At first I thought nothing of it, then one day I began to wonder...did they really say "hello" back that far in time?

    NOPE! HELLO didn't start coming into play until around 1883. Hard to believe, huh?

    I love research, don't you?


  7. Interesting and welcome to Lady Scribes, Leigh! I'm amazed at how many words are modern but I also believe we're writing to a certain modern crowd. So if you're writing a medieval you don't necessarily have to write as they did in those days, it wouldn't draw in reader. So while you don't want anything glaringly obvious you have to be able to market the book at the same time. And today's readership is even more demanding for a faster pace. I think its a delicate balance and one any writer should be aware of. Excellent post and I know my crit group catches me all the time with modern sounding words lol. Thank God for crit groups!

  8. Hi Leigh! I don't write historical, but in my Scottish paranormal, my hero comes from 1860, so I've run into situations where I'm not sure if a phrase or word was common then. "Condom" was a problem. While some sort of condom has been around forever, I had trouble finding out what it would have been commonly called during that time period. Thankfully, my warrior travels the world over, so I'm not limited to just what it would have been in Scotland. I started to use "french letters" but I was never happy with the word. So I finally avoided the hero have to actually use the word.

  9. Anita, would condoms have been called "safes"? I know they were in some eras but I don't know the 1860s that well.

    Melissa -- absolutely we have to satisfy the modern reader. Think of a Tudor woman who took a bath once a year and thought she was risking her health to expose herself to water so often! Not a great role model for the heroine of a romance novel.

    Getting the balance right is key -- enough period language to evoke the mood, without dragging down the story. Making the character heroic, romantic and attractive, while keeping him/her believable. I'm not sure there are any rules of thumb -- it's different for each author and perhaps even for each story.

  10. Phyllis, does use of "hello" as a greeting coincide with the rise of the telephone? Just a thought...

  11. Leigh,

    I just read that the word "Hello" was suggested by the Bell Telephone Company in 1883 as the proper way to answer the telephone. Good thought!

    Thanks for visiting with us today. I always enjoy your blogs.

    I think I've used French doors too. Another word I use at times that I know isn't historically accurate is cad. Apparently, the word wasn't used until 1832. I wonder if I'll get called on it. And I do cringe when I see women, or men in mixed company, using the word "bloody". I know it isn't a bad word now, but back then it was a strong curse word.

  12. While I love to read historicals (and will definitely be buying Leigh's books), I don't write them. So, this has been a very educational (and interesting) discussion!