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Using Historical Language During Modern Times: An Author’s Dilemma

An author's guide to using authentically outdated terms and phrases of the past, without ignoring the lessons learned from history.

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Allow me to bring up something a bit awkward. We have all read it – the word or term used in a book that makes us pause or hope that we didn’t actually repeat it aloud or within earshot of others. We may have even questioned whether to include it in a book, poem, or essay that we wish to create. The decision to use sensitive language regarding a character of a specific faith, orientation, or race in a historical novel continues to be a subject with which many authors wrestle. But what are some ways to resolve this touchy issue?


Recently, an author friend of mine, Tess, timidly shared that she was having challenges writing about a fictional character named Lucy. She was confident that Lucy could add life to her novel set in late 18th century Philadelphia. Tess, who is white, could describe her African American character’s backstory and motivation with ease. However, Tess wanted to stay true to the time-period but was not blind to the fact that descriptions of women, people of color, or the impoverished were blatant and often demonstrative. In order for the historical literature to take authentic shape, she needed to imagine traveling in the folds of time. Tess knew that she could not ignore the realistic treatment or words that would be cast in Lucy's direction by individuals in the book.


When faced with the dilemma whether to use historically accurate, yet objectionable language, Tess said to me, “Calling Lucy by something other than her name seems so wrong.”


“Because it is,” I said without a hint of sugar to coat my response. She then asked what she should do. I have witnessed authors publish and immortalize words that could be harmful to certain groups without understanding the amount of accountability we need to take within our craft. So, I greatly appreciated my friend for approaching me with such a challenging topic. Here were a few of my suggestions:


Tip #1 - Have an open and courageous dialogue with others who belong to that particular community


Have an open and courageous dialogue with others who belong to that particular community whether it is with friends or a writer’s group. The purpose is not to necessarily receive permission to use certain language, but to get their perspective. Even some film makers and directors recognize the need to create work that is authentic but discovered ways to be strategic and sensitive with the approach, such as Steven Spielberg and the West Side Story creative team who visited the University of Puerto Rico for an open dialogue with students and faculty prior to the film’s release. Sometimes, when we are developing a character, especially one of a different tribe, religion, or culture, we may learn, after speaking with others, that our focus was on the wrong thing or that our own perception was askew. To put it plainly, failure to do the proper research or to rid a draft bugged with stereotypes could have a lasting impact on one’s career.


Tip #2 - Be intentional


Just because you can write certain words doesn’t always mean you should. Ask yourself whether using certain language serves a purpose within the narrative. In terms of race, you may even recall the ever controversial and often banned Huckleberry Finn (yes, I’m going there) where epithets gradually dwindle and the “name” of Huck’s raft mate becomes simply, Jim.


Tip #3 - Utilize the author’s note


Use the author’s note to explain why certain terms were used and why you felt the need to include them in your writing. You might even remind readers of the book’s time frame and what was happening during that period. However you choose to do it, address it before someone else does.


Like society, language evolves, and it tells a story. It tells us who we are and where we’ve been. While I can’t speak for others, one of my goals when writing my historical novel, Song of Redemption was to remain true to the time-period without sweetening it up to avoid leaving a bad taste in peoples’ mouths. I often utilized cringe-worthy language that, unfortunately, was casually and openly used to describe women and my own people. I had to choose whether to be “politically correct” or tell the truth. And I will always choose truth. Overall, if the language makes others uncomfortable, which it makes me, then that is a testament of how far we have come in our society.


What are your thoughts about using or reading words and terms intended to provide literary authenticity?

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