Word By Word

I’m currently working on line edits for The Wolf and His King, my ‘Bisclavret’ retelling. Line edits, for me, are a multi-faceted process of nitpicking absolutely everything. This includes the grammar and rhythm of sentences, and I’ll read the whole book aloud to check for accidental rhyme, awkward alliteration, and repetition, because the feel of the words in my mouth is at least as important as their literal meanings. It’s also the part of the process when I research a lot of the fine details. Some people prefer to do their research earlier in the process, but for these kinds of details, I find it’s only worth doing them once I know a scene or line is sticking around, and therefore whether it’s worth going down the rabbithole.

Several rabbits on a hill riddled with their tunnels. A white hunting animal, perhaps a dog, enters one of the tunnels. The two rabbit on top of the hill appear to be having a conversation. Marginal illustration from a psalter.
Medieval rabbitholes:
British Library, Additional MS 42130 (The Lutterell Psalter), folio 176v

But rabbitholes, there are many — and my general interest in medieval literature and the world of its characters means I’m not inclined to read only the bare minimum to grasp a concept, but have a tendency to learn a lot more than is strictly necessary. At one point, I wanted to refine a metaphor but I needed a better understanding of how medieval people understood the universe, so I read an entire book about medieval science for the sake of a handful of words about constellations. Currently, I’m reading a whole book on knightly education and the literate culture of medieval courts to make sure everybody in the book knows the correct amount of Latin for their status and role. You get the idea.

Then there are the briefer queries, like whether a plant is native to the area, which usually prompts a Wikipedia dive. Every time I mention an animal, I check medieval bestiaries to understand better how medieval people would have thought about it, and to give myself the option to include some of those weirder ideas in the book itself. (Weasels can raise the dead? Sure, why not.)

A major part of my nitpicking, however, revolves around language and etymology, and I’ve found myself bookmarking the online OED for faster reference. (The advantage of being both an author and a PhD student is that I get full access via my uni login; truly, the university library has enabled so much of my research.)

I had to set out my own rules before I embarked on this. My characters are not speaking modern English — they live in alternate-universe 12th century Brittany*, and so are probably speaking a mixture of medieval Breton, French, and Latin, depending on the context. As such, there’s no point being too fussy about exactly when a word was first attested in English. But my rule for myself is that I need the concept to exist, and etymology is usually the first step to discovering the answer to that, especially if I can find a solid Latin or Anglo-Norman root for a word or idea.

*It has a king. Brittany was a duchy in this period.

An early casualty of this process was the figurative use of “purgatory” (“the endless purgatory of waiting to be discovered”); turns out even the restricted theological use of purgatory is just ever so slightly too late for me, with our very own Marie de France probably being responsible for its use in Anglo-Norman French, c. 1190. This would probably have been fine, if I meant it in the purely theological sense; I’ve deliberately not pinned this novel to a specific year, even if in my brain it’s somewhere in the 1170s, and I figured a 20-year anachronism was no big deal. The figurative use, though, didn’t seem to enter French until the sixteenth century, and four centuries is an entirely different kettle of fish; after a lot of pondering, I swapped it for the simpler torment, with a flag to come back to the overall sentence to see if I could re-work it.

Then, a more recent challenge: focus. This one tested me. Of course medieval authors and audiences would have had a concept of directing your attention to a specific thing, or concentrating on it, but focus would have meant something quite different to them — its earliest use seems to have been a term for a hearth or fireplace. Its more scientific use as a fixed point at which point light or sound converges is a seventeenth century one, and therefore our modern use of the term was pretty significantly at odds with what it would have meant to a medieval audience.

Did that matter, though, given that the concept of “specific thing you are looking at” must have been around for as long as people were looking at specific things? This was difficult to answer, and it was while I was grumbling about this word and how many times I seemed to have used it (or variants) in one of my writing groups that somebody asked the crucial question, the one that helped me pin down why I was doing this in the first place: “Is there a reason this novel needs to be etymologically accurate?”

Slightly facetiously, I answered, “I want the book to be good and historical detail matters to me.” And this is true. I want it to be good, and historical detail does matter to me. I’m a pedant even when I try not to be, and have been repeatedly jarred out of historical fiction or TV shows by anachronisms.

But although those anachronisms sometimes relate to words, it’s not usually just about the attestation date: it’s usually about the social ideas and concepts that are being expressed by those words, and whether those existed. I got annoyed at Netflix’s Bodies for using the term “homosexual” in 1890, two years before it was coined in English, not primarily because the word was anachronistic but because the entire concept of homosexuality represented a massive shift in queer history and how what was previously ‘behaviour’ started to be understood as ‘identity’. As such, it wasn’t just a word that wasn’t around in English yet, but an understanding of the world and a specific theory of human nature. (They probably would’ve got away with it, except that I was re-reading Halperin’s 100 Years of Homosexuality the same week that I watched Bodies. Bad timing for them/my enjoyment of that strand of the show.)

And when I’ve grown frustrated with other medieval-set novels, it’s rarely the language that’s the problem, but the mindsets: the modern attitudes towards touch and intimacy; the lack of religion in the background (and foreground) of everyday life; the way ‘good’ characters are ‘progressive’ in ways that align with modern values but rarely make sense for their context; the attitude towards clothing — and by extension often to women’s work of weaving and sewing — that speaks to a modern fast fashion mindset and not a world in which every scrap of fabric represented hours of labour…

So I thought about it a little more, and I realised it wasn’t really historical accuracy in terminology that was important to me. What mattered was that the work of weeding out these linguistic anachronisms also served to weed out lazy cliches in figurative language where I’d fallen back on a set phrase that relied on a modern understanding of the world — an understanding my characters wouldn’t have had. What I actually wanted to do wasn’t to write a linguistically correct pastiche of the twelfth century, but to represent the viewpoint of my characters: their perspective of the world, their understanding of the plot, not a modern understanding of those same events.

I doubt I’ll ever fully succeed in this aim, both because I’m a long way removed from the twelfth century and because I hail from suburban London, which means I’ve spent much of my life somewhat distant from nature and the rhythm of the seasons and the land. Nor do I think a wholly medieval mindset would suit the story I’m trying to tell, which is, after all, intended for a modern audience, and is using medieval literature to think about concepts that trouble me as somebody living in the modern world. If it were purely a medieval text, there would be no point me writing it, because that text already exists, and Marie de France wrote it. The whole point of a retelling is that it’s doing something new with a story, and striking different resonances, some of which its original audience might not have heard.

But every time I find a word that relies too heavily on a modern concept, challenge it, and reword every sentence that it’s in, I think I’m untangling some of the assumptions that my characters will see the world the same way that I do, the same way that my readers do, and express it in ways that are familiar to us. I’m forcing myself to consider how my own mindset as a writer is shaped by modern science, as well as by the specific branch of Christianity that I grew up with — although I didn’t have a secular upbringing, it was a very twenty-first century low-church Protestant environment that would be completely alien to a twelfth century Christian, and as such, I keep accidentally being heretical.

(This will be the next stage of the historical nitpicking: the Heresy Read, in which I will consult my friend who works on medieval hagiography and generally knows more about medieval Christianity than I do, to check that any heresy in this book is there on purpose. Heresy, you see, can be present for valid plot or emotional reasons, but only when it’s done secure in the knowledge that it is heretical, and not just because I have to be periodically reminded that saints are a thing.)

And so every time I spot a word that looks a little too scientific, or relies on a modern understanding of emotions or relationships, or which otherwise rings the little bell in my head labelled “possible anachronism?”, I get out the OED, and I look it up, and I start my research journey: Meanings and uses. Etymology. Anglo-Norman and Latin roots. Alternative words that might be older. New ways in which I might get across this concept that are completely detached from this phrasing.

Just as I occasionally stop myself, think, “Is it feasible that people would go to a specific location to drink and socialise when brewing was, as far as I’m aware, more or less a home industry and ‘taverns’ as a concept aren’t really around yet?”, and then make a note to research history of brewing and social drinking for the sake of ensuring one scene takes place in a historically plausible location. Because I know that’s the exact kind of detail that would bug me if somebody else got it wrong, and therefore, in the interests of not being a hypocrite when I bitch to my friends about something I’m reading, I owe it to myself to do as much research as I can.

I will never catch everything. I am relying on my background as a medievalist to have correctly labelled those possible anachronism? bells, and it’s entirely possible some will not sound when they should. But every word I look up brings me a little closer to understanding how my characters might have experienced and expressed things, and that matters — just as every rabbithole I go down on the larger issues, like education, flags new things to include which I hadn’t even thought to look up. (My marginal notes now include several injunctions to ADD MORE MUSICIANS!)

It’s a slow process, but bit by bit, word by word, concept by concept, I am making something of this book that is more medieval, and by doing that, making it more creative, more challenging, and less reliant on cliches and borrowed turns of phrase. It is forcing me to be deliberate about the language I use, and it’s making me a better writer by doing so.

Or at least, I think it is. Eventually, I suppose, we’ll find out if you agree.

The Wolf and His King will be published by Gollancz in 2025, and is available to pre-order now.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.