October 15, 2013

Word Choice in Secondary World Fantasy

I've been obsessively editing a new project. One of the annoying and wonderful things about this is finding words that don't fit in the novel's setting. English is full of idiomatic expressions I take for granted.

I can't have a character barrel past someone in a culture that uses large, earthenware pots for food storage.

The phrase "keeping someone at bay" sounds silly in a land-locked society.

Having anything ingot-shaped is problematic when there's no metallurgy.

Sometimes this is infuriating. I'd described one character as having "silvery hair." It's not a particularly unique phrase, but "silvery" came with connotation of wealth and status that matched the character. But with no silver in the book, it had to go.

"Gray" just wasn't the same.Gray is the color of over-boiled cabbage and old clothes. I'd keep the nod to her age but lose all the connotations I liked. Wikipedia's list of colors gave no easy solutions.

So I started thinking about what was available in the setting instead. Plants, animals, food. Eventually I settled on "slate-gray hair." Slate felt hard, unforgiving, perhaps even reminiscent of an angry 1800's school teacher -- another important aspect of this character.

I probably could have chopped the adjective. Her dialogue is already hard-nosed, her dress opulent. But that tiny word clued in her age, reinforced the viewpoint character's fear, and now backed up the setting. Obsessing over one word probably wouldn't make the novel better, but after dozens of changes, I feel like the novel is a bit richer and a bit more itself than it was before.