May 2024: Words: New, Old, Current, Passe

Words, words, that’s what we do, slinging words around the computer and putting them together as we craft our books.

Sometimes those words must reflect the eras we are writing about.

Sometimes what we need most is one of those perfectly good words that nobody ever uses anymore, as a dear friend of D.Z.’s used to say. The one that fits the times and the mood needed.

D. Z. Church

Spunky or Not

It's all in the journey...

One of the challenges of writing historical fiction is bringing an era to life … accurately. Some eras are more challenging. For instance, the late 1870s, when my Wanee books take place, were a time of industrial and societal change. Electricity, sewers, city water, boilers, flushing toilets in the house, and even the telephone were on the verge of changing small towns forever. In short, everything was in the midst of change, including the language with new words to describe new things seemingly arriving daily, such as typewriter, telephone etc., etc.

As I write, I aim to provide the reader a doorway into a different time and place, somewhere they feel comfortable staying for a while. I research everything, including dances danced and fabrics used — 

“… but it is not certain she would recognize paduasoy from another fabric. I think she likes to say the word paduasoy and the idea of it being silk. Although, it will be unbearably hot in this weather. She will melt into it and destroy the fabric on the first outing.”

— types of facial hair, men’s coats and women’s undergarments, music, methods of washing clothes, duties done on specific days and, well, everything — including that Harper’s Bazaar was first published as Harper’s Bazar.

I pay close attention to regional words and dialects. I am diligent about looking up words and phrases to ensure their provenance. Yet, often, when I research a phrase I am certain is too modern (i.e., spunky or plucky), I discover the word was first used well before the period in question, only to research a word I am certain was current only to learn its first use was later.

In the 1870s, people spoke politely in mixed company, with the manner and expectations of women little changed from before the Civil War. And so, Waneeans are courteous when talking to each other and careful of proper forms of address and behavior. They conjugate correctly and are precise in their words and word choices, often using regionalisms, such as the non-adverbial forms of near(ly), sore(ly), and bare(ly).

“I am not. You may ask Miss Countryman. Only last evening, while you were prancing about, three of the town’s most eligible men were falling near over each other to lure her into a moment of conversation. What I believe she has that you might copy is substance.”

Local dialects were rampant and in flux as towns burgeoned from the arrival of tramps seeking work. Wanee is no different. The people who populate Railtown, the miners, boilermakers, stockmen and immigrants, conjugate verbs in keeping with their level of education. The less educated they are, the less they conjugate and the plainer their language, yet they abide by the prescribed forms of address.

“Miss Countryman, please,” he pulled on the sleeve of her dress. “Please, I just come from the undertaker, ma’am. Two men brung Mr. Kanady in there, and he’s layin’ all white like the rest of them dead bodies. He don’t belong in there, not with them. He’d rise up if he could, no matter if’n he was dead or not.”

I love words. I do, however confounding they may be. I do my best to be as true to the period, the language, and the people as possible, which I hope results in capturing the era in a captivating story.

All excerpts are from A Confluence of Enemies, the second Wanee Mystery.

Janet Dawson

Dancing With The Pepper Shaker

pepper shaker

As a writer, I wield words the way I do when I use a pepper shaker to add flavor to what I’m cooking. Choosing the right amount of cayenne is important, and so is the language that enhances the book I’m writing. Careful reading and research aids me in creating descriptions and dialog that fit with the time period of the work-in-progress.

My novels featuring private investigator Jeri Howard are contemporary. However, Jeri’s case in the tenth book, Bit Player, takes readers back to the early 1940s. Jeri learns that her grandmother Jerusha, for whom she is named, was questioned by the police in connection with the still-unsolved murder of an actor. Determined to find out what happened, Jeri starts investigating. As she reads letters that Jerusha wrote to her sister, she gets details about her grandmother’s life as a Hollywood bit player in the months before Pearl Harbor.

Bit players are actors who have small speaking roles in movies. In one early chapter, Jerusha and her friend and housemate Pearl are shopping at a farmers market, talking about working in the movies. Pearl’s got a part in an upcoming movie directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart—something about a falcon, she says. 

Jerusha’s next role is in a movie that stars George Raft, who was a dancer on Broadway before moving to Tinseltown. I wanted to give the dialog a Forties flavor so I went looking for the slang of the era. And found it.

Pearl says:

“Raft, can that man dance! What a pepper shaker.”

Later in the book, another character calls someone a “wet smack.” That means a dull or obnoxious person. The terms “bushwa” and “browned off” also put in appearances.

I’m working on a historical novel that takes place in the late 1870s. Describing characters and their environment challenges me as I work to get the look and feel—and language—of the period.

In one scene, my protagonist, Catriona, is with her friend Esme, in the latter’s bedroom. The two young women are dressing for a party, while Esme’s younger sister Rebecca watches. Esme hopes to attract the attention of a certain young man. She has a crush on him, but it appears that term in that usage didn’t gain popularity until the 1880s. I went looking for words that were used in the 1870s and found one that I like a lot.

Rebecca, perched on the nearby bed, giggled and crowed, “Esme goes all spoony when she sees Mr. Tunstall.”

I consult a number of books, such as The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life, etc. There are several volumes on my shelf, including one for the Civil War era and another for Prohibition through World War II. Websites abound with information on language. That’s where I found the term pepper shaker, meaning a good dancer, slang that was in use in the 1940s.

And sockdolager, a word in use since about the 1820s. I am longing to use that one. What is a sockdolager? Depending on the dictionary consulted, it can mean: a knockdown or finishing blow; something that settles a matter; a decisive blow or answer; something outstanding or exceptional.

I’ve got the word and I love the way it feels when I pronounce it. Now I just need a place to use it.

A Lovely Place to Die: The San Luis Valley, Colorado

San Luis Valley

The early chapters of my historical novel take place in the San Luis Valley, primarily located in southern Colorado and stretching into New Mexico. Tucked between two mountain ranges, the Sangre de Cristos to the east and the San Juans to the west, the valley is about 120 miles long and very wide, some 74 miles. The elevation averages 7,600 feet above sea level.

Human habitation dates to the Utes, then Hispanic settlers from New Mexico arrived, making San Luis the oldest continuously occupied town in Colorado, dating to 1851. Anglo settlers came over the Continental Divide into the valley. Then came Fort Garland, a U. S. Army outpost.

The landscape here has great variety. And for the mystery writer, lots of places to commit mayhem and hide bodies.

The mighty Rio Grande rises at the Continental Divide to the west, flows first to the east, then curves south, slicing down the valley to New Mexico. As the river meanders through Alamosa, the valley’s largest city, it looks relatively benign, but there are remote sections south of town where crimes can take place, and have, according to my sources.

The Great Sand Dunes dominate the east side of the valley. This national park contains the tallest dunes in North America, ranging up to 750 feet and covering about 30 square miles. That’s an estimated 1.2 cubic miles of sand.

Medano Creek flows through the dunes but doesn’t have a stable creek bed. Instead, it meanders and surges, depending on the time of year. It’s usually only a few inches deep and visitors to the dunes can wade through it to climb higher. As the summer gets hotter, the creek disappears, reappearing next season. Blowing sand and the more remote stretches of the dunes—I feel a sense of menace, perhaps a plot coming on.

South of the dunes, Blanca Peak dominates the landscape. This 14,351-foot mountain is the fourth highest in Colorado. It’s an impressive sight at any time of the year, but particularly when covered with snow in the winter. A popular site for climbers—who knows what could happen on those high rocky paths?

In the year my book begins, 1877, the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad is pushing west into the valley. Another railroad, built a few years later, still exists. It’s a narrow gauge heritage operation, designated a National Historic Landmark. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad runs for 64 miles between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, through high desert and mountains, skirting the 600-foot drop down Toltec Gorge and chugging over 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass. Knowing how I like to set mysteries on trains, be sure that this historic narrow gauge railroad is bubbling around in my head.

Bubbling just like the hot springs found all over the valley.