WoW: Using Unusual Words

Welcome to Wordsmithing on Wednesdays, when I share a tip from my days as an editor.

Unusual words can add to the enjoyment of reading a story.

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?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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5 Responses to WoW: Using Unusual Words

  1. There are a dozen or so unusual words I have used.

    My rule is: If I use a very unusual word, funny or otherwise, it is rare that I would use it twice in one novel.

    I think the reaction of the reader the first time is probably a good one …

    The second time we run the risk of sounding like a hack.

    Go for the joke to make the reader laugh. Reach for the prose to make the reader get that “awwww” feeling.

    Don’t do it again because the second time it is not funny and the reaction might be … Oh, not that again.

    Thanks again for these weekly posts. It stretches us to learn new lessons every day.

  2. Donna L. Bolk says:

    I enjoy coming across unusal words when I read, but I also agree with, overuse is overkill. I want to see it once, and used in a way that I’ll understand the meaning so it doesn’t pull me out of the story.

  3. Vonnie Davis says:

    I love seeing different words used, if they are used well. I don’t mind stopping to look it up in the dictionary, but then I’m a “gotta know” freak. I don’t feel that pulls me out of the story any more than stopping to get a fresh cup of coffee or a cookie. I do enjoy using a word in a different way once in a while. I agree: using an unique word once is enough.

  4. Diane says:

    I like to say “bloomers” a lot from my days of working as a health care provider in a nursing home. My whole family says it now.

  5. Hi Keli,
    I love all words and in my earliest days as a writer I thought it was very sophisticated to use the biggest, most “intellectual” words in my vocabulary. For that reason, journalism school was great for me: I couldn’t be flowery, I needed to be clean and concise. Now, I love to use words just as you do–as spice. One of my favorites is luminescent. It tends to pop up a lot in my work for some reason.

    I also use jargon frequently because I love words specific to a job or a hobby. I write about horses and music a lot. I got nailed on “western saddle” from several cps who didn’t know what one was. It was second nature to me. The other place is dialect. When used sparingly it can be effective in a book–but it’s like a foreign language and translating takes a little creativity.

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