I'm an editor. A grammarian. A bonafide word nerd. I do an etymology post on my blog once a week because I'm so intrigued by the history of words. When I prepare to write a book set in a given era, my research includes reading books written within that window, so that I can get a feel for how the people of the time spoke. I update it a bit when necessary to make it accessible to modern readers, but I really try to capture the cadence, the feel of speech. It's important to me.
That's why I chose to write my biblical-set novels without using any contractions. It was a conscious decision I made to reflect the fact that the languages they would have spoken at the time didn't have contractions to help them convey formal vs. informal--that had to be done through word choice and arrangement. It was a challenge I enjoyed . . . but when I moved to Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland, set in 1783, I went, "Phew! I get to use contractions again!!"
So I sat down with some writing by Benjamin Franklin. Some Jefferson. A small smattering of other founding fathers. And thought, I can do this. No problem. A little updating here, a little informalizing there, and we'll be good.
You can imagine my gasp when my editor sent her first round of notes that said this: "You use too many contractions for the era. Rework the dialogue."
What?? ME???? Too many contractions? That's just . . . why, that couldn't possibly . . . hmmm. Much as I hated to admit it, she may have a point--I may have gone too far the other direction. Well, my education taught me how to reason through a problem, and how to solve it. This one required some simple research and exploration. A scientific approach. Data.
So I got down to work. With the assistance of Google books, I did advanced searches on books from 1700 to 1790. I searched for every . . . single . . . contraction I had used in my book. I deleted. I edited. I inserted a few new, fun ones (like 'tisn't and shan't and 'twouldn't--I mean, who could pass those up?). And I made myself a chart--I wanted to be able to assure my oh-so-wise editor that the ones I used were perfectly legitimate, and that I had taken care of any that weren't.
My chart has a few columns: In Use, Not in Use, and Sparingly. Pretty self explanatory, I suppose. =) I went through and checked my dialogue (and narrative too) line by line to make sure my language matched up with this--and thus far, I've gotten a lot of comments from other editors on how dead-on the language is, so that pleases me to no end. =)
I do realize this chart makes me a genuine word-nerd. And I'm okay with that--especially if some of you might find it useful, too, if you write Colonial-set stories . . . or just interested, if you're curious as to when our most common contractions came into standard use. I enjoyed doing the work--hopefully you all enjoy the fruits.