Friday, April 01, 2011

The Power of Words

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
'Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper - even a rag like this -
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that's his.

from Don Juan George Gordon, Lord Byron

This is one of my favorite Byron quotes. In fact it is on the opening page of my website for just that reason. I like the idea of my words living on long after I’m gone. It can be, however, a double-edged sword. Words are powerful, whether spoken or written. They can change the world or change someone’s mind. They can change how we see others or how we see ourselves.

We, as wordsmiths, spend much of our time trying to pick just the right words to draw a reader in, to create the world of our story, to introduce characters who will resonate with our readers and make them want to continue reading. Just the right words will carry a reader through your pages like a gondola on the canals of Venice or like the passenger seat in a fighter jet.

Those of us who write historical romance have a completely separate set of issues when we write. We have to insure our words don’t just tell the story, but do so in language that isn’t an anachronism to the times. I am constantly using to check the date a particular word came into use. I also have access to a number of dictionaries from the nineteenth century and a couple of interesting sites on the history of swearing and the evolution of terms for “the naughty bits,” as my British friends call it.

And those of you who write paranormal romance often have the task of making up words to define the colors, emotions, and objects in your paranormal worlds. I am in awe of some of the elaborate glossaries associated with certain paranormal series.

I always have a notebook handy when I read. When I come across a particularly good word, I will jot it down in said notebook and later go back to write in a definition and an etymological timeline on the word. I also collect books about, well, about words. Peter Bowler has a great series of Superior Person’s Book of Words that have some of the most amusing, confusing and esoteric words in the history of the English language.

His eructation was neither called for nor polite.
(Sounds so much better than – Dude burped and grossed me out!)

So, as a writer, do you spend hours mulling over which word to use? Do you find that once you get to know your characters there are words they use that are unique to them? Are there words you shy away from using because you feel readers won’t recognize them or worse, might be offended by them? One of my critique partners found this interesting thread on an Amazon forum. Words to Cringe By

Check it out, but be warned. Do not read through this while drinking a beverage of any kind. You will drown your keyboard!

After you read it you will never look at your love scenes the same way again!

How about it? What lengths do you go to in order to choose just the right words? And have you ever written something, read over it and thought “Hey! That’s good! I wrote that!” Share it with us! In the words of my brother “It ain’t braggin’ if you’ve done it!”


Samantha Grace said...

Interesting blog. Authors love words, don't we? My goal in writing is to convey my story in the clearest way, so if I think a word might send readers scurrying to the dictionary, I won't use it. And if I use a period specific word, I try to make sure the reader can tell what it is from the context. Those are my only guidelines. :)

And the link really is hilarious!

Louisa Cornell said...

Hey, Samantha! Good to see you here!

I think your criteria for words is spot on. No one wants to have to read a romance novel with a dictionary in hand.

And that link had me in stitches!

Catherine Gayle said...

Great blog post, Louisa. I'm a big fan of words, and of learning more words than I currently know. I keep a list handy as I read, like you, to add words to it. Usually, I can at least guess the general meaning based on the context. But then later, I'll look up the definition and try to find ways to use them, when appropriate, in my writing. Some of my critique partners will find words in my WIPs that they worry will send readers looking them up--but I don't think that's a bad thing, unless it is a constant thing. I don't want to challenge my readers to the point that they put my books down and never finish reading them--but I do want to challenge them.

Louisa Cornell said...

Hi Catherine! Thanks for stopping by! Glad I'm not the only one who keeps a "word" list! And challenging is good! I've read many comments on blogs from readers speaking of reading historical romance as a vocabulary building experience.

Lexi said...

Oh, my goodness, choosing the 'write' word is essential, which may be why I am so slow to fill a page! I do have an easier time of it, writing contemporary, but it is still a struggle at times to find the right voice for the characters. Good post, Louisa!

Lexi said...

Okay, just read the first page of the Amazon link on words that make you cringe and had to stop reading. If I can't squirt, spurt, growl, scream, mewl, frisson or cream, how can I write a sex scene? Hee hee, take that, you nub!

Louisa Cornell said...

LOL I KNEW that link would give you a laugh, Lexi !! It sounds as if we shall have to limit ourselves to He put his tab A into her slot B !!

Hot sex is NOT for the faint of heart!

Carla Swafford said...

I struggle with finding the correct word and hate it when it won't come.

It's funny how certain words can make some people cringe while other people will be titillated.

Titillated is a favorite word of mine as it sounds sexy all by itself.

M.V.Freeman said...

I read the words on that link and laughed out loud. I think I'm going to have review my words. I do believe "laved" did show up at some point.

But I love words... I adore when I read a book that challenges me and creates a picture in my head.
Recently I read a friend's MS and she used the word "mordant" and just like that the mood was set. What a glorious way of saying it!

Louisa Cornell said...


Isn't it funny how some people are put off by certain words and the rest of us can't wait to turn the page.

And I definitely know how it feels to be trapped in the middle of a sentence and at a loss for the right word to continue. Especially if you know the right word and can't remember it!

Louisa Cornell said...

Oooh "mordant" GREAT WORD !! Glad I'm not the only person who has "word envy" - what happens when someone uses the perfect word and you think "OH! I wish I'd said that!"

Aileen Fish said...

I have begun using the highlight/bookmark function on my Nook for just this purpose, especially with the Regency era. I mark the phrases that just scream that time period. I might never use the phrase, but when I skim my notes I can get that voice flowing in my head. I want a reader to know on the first page what era they are reading,

Louisa Cornell said...

Ooh, Aileen! What a great use of the Nook ! I know exactly what you mean. There are some phrases and words that just scream Regency! Thank goodness!