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Tea Party Winners: Vicki Talley McCollum's Never Say Goodbye, A National Park Romance novella goes to: Caryl Kane, Deanne Patterson, Deana Dick, Carrie Fancett Pagels' winners, Roseanna White's winners - , Gabrielle Meyer's winners -, Deb Marvin's winners -

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tools of the Trade - The Contraction Chart



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.


20 comments:

  1. Roseanna -- another word nerd. I love it! I can't tell you how many times I've been sidetracked from writing while checking the etemology of a word. I keep on file dictionaries of cultural and time period slangs/idioms/axioms. Sometimes an idiom is more trouble than it's worth trying to couch it in content that gives the reader a clue about its meaning. For example, in Laurel, the sequel to my book, The Chamomile, my heroine is pregnant and throws up every morning and after meals. A colonial term for that is "casting up one's accounts." I used the term and hope my readers will understand. Thanks so much for the chart of contractions. Good stuff.

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    1. I do that too, Susan! And I've heard the "casting up one's accounts" before, so I think it'll be quite clear in your book, no worries. =)

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  2. Thanks for sharing the chart! Very helpful. :)

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  3. Awesome post! Thanks so much for sharing :)

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    1. Sure, Faye. =) I'm always glad to see your smiling face in the comments. ;-)

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  4. Thanks, Roseanna, I always love your posts!

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  5. Roseanna, I LOVE this!!

    I remember once reading a western romance set in about 1850, and the author stopped me dead in my tracks with the expression: "She couldn't wrap her brain around it."

    Oh. My. Gosh. Where was her editor??? It literally almost ruined the story for me, stealing its authenticity.

    Which is why I chose WWI era to write for my first books, because I knew the language would be the same and my very casual style of contractions and nicknames would work just fine. Unfortunately, my editors asked me to move my current series-in-progress, The Cousins McClare, from my original era of 1930s to late 1800s or or early 1900s, and my casual style doesn't quite fit to me, so not sure how that's going to play! :)

    Anyway, I just want you to know how much I ADMIRE and APPRECIATE the time you take to be authentic in your writing. It DOES make a difference, at least to this reader.

    Hugs,
    Julie

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    1. That stuff gets me too, Julie! But I think you'll do fine transitioning to an earlier era. =) Late 1800s won't be such a big difference. And if anyone can handle it, it's your amazing self.

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  6. This is WONDERFUL, Roseanna! Thank you for the intricate care that you use in writing your dialogue. Very helpful! I love getting the right cadence as well...and unique phrases of the time. But not so much as to make a reader scratch their head in confusion. ;-) Wonderful post!

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    1. Exactly my goal, Elaine. =) The right cadence is so important! So long as we avoid confusion.

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  7. Thanks, all! Silly me totally spaced that I'd scheduled this for Friday so am a little late stopping in, LOL. But Word Nerds Unite!

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  8. Thanks for the post Mrs. White. I always enjoy reading your blogs. :)

    I love words too. I like using more "intelligent" words and "olde-fashioned" words. Unfortunately, I don't use them as often as I would like to; I try not to scare people away with what words I say.

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    1. LOL. You should hear some of the things my kids say--you can tell their mom's a historical writer! My three year old (then) asks, "What shall we do today, Mama?" And when I say, "Go to Nonna's to play with your new train set," he replied, "Oh, that would be LOVELY!" I'll have them saying "shan't" and "'twasn't" in no time, tee hee hee.

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    2. That's super cute. It sounds like the White household is a lot of fun.

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  9. Love the chart, Roseanna. I've always been of the opinion that when writing historical fiction, we should write dialogue true to the period.

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    1. Absolutely. Well, obviously so long as we don't lose the modern readers--you won't see me writing in Middle English, LOL--but for our time period, Rita, definitely. Congrats on the release of your latest!!

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  10. Roseanna, I've recently switched from 15th century Scotland to 1858 American and now I'm in 1760 Scotland/America. I'm going to have to go back and check my contractions. Thank you!

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    1. Sure, Jennifer! Happy to help lessen the whiplash of switching eras whenever I can, LOL. Heaven knows my neck was aching with my most recent jump.

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