Welcome to Wordsmithing on Wednesdays, when I share a tip from my days as an editor.
I write historicals and have fun including such dated terms as betrothed, propriety, and bedchamber.
Most people have some idea of what those words mean, but some I use are so dated the reader won’t know the meaning. In those cases, I have to find a subtle way to work in a description.
My heroine and several of the women in town carry a reticule. Since this isn’t a word in many readers’ vocabularies, I make a point to refer to the reticule as a handbag in the section when I introduce the term. The second time it’s used, I say something like “the reticule hanging from her wrist,” which serves to remind the reader what it is.
Unusual words find their way into contemporary stories, too. They may be words associated with a profession or a hobby. The writer can use the same renaming and reminding techniques to help the reader learn the meaning without being too obvious.
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Every now and then I’m able to use an unusual word like addlepated or poppycock to add flavor. However, these terms are so unique that I limit myself to using them once in a story. Because they tend to catch a reader’s eye, I don’t want to overuse them and lose their effectiveness. Just as a little cayenne pepper goes a long way in a pot of chili, one use of words such as these is enough to add some spice without being overpowering.
I was reminded of the importance of using unusual words sparingly during the revision of my work-in-progress. The story is set in the Sierra Foothills of California where I live. It takes place during the summer months when temperatures soar. We’ll often experience several days when the thermometer registers in the triple digits.
In my story, I used a term we in this area hear all the time in regard to the temperature: century mark. Ask anyone in my town what the term “the temperature reached the century mark” means, and they could tell you that it’s at least one hundred degrees outside.
This wording stopped both my critique partners, one of whom lives on the East Coast and the other in the Great Lakes region. Since they rarely encounter triple-digit temperatures, it wasn’t a term they were familiar with. Because it’s used so often here, I had unknowingly slipped it into the story multiple times. Both CPs suggested I remove all but one use of century mark and find other ways to refer to the temperature in subsequent passages, which I did.
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I wanna know . . .
Do you enjoy working unusual words into your writing?
What are some you’ve particularly enjoyed adding to a story?
Do you find it jarring to see unusual words used more than once in a book?