Advice, please!

This is a plea for advice about vocabulary to use when writing novels set in the past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been pulled up three times about words I’ve used in my current work in progress, A Bargain Struck. Two of the criticisms are correct, I’m sure, but one I’m not so certain about – and that’s where I need your help.

The first of the three criticisms came from the Oxford Writers’ Group. When I read to the group the opening page of A Bargain Struck, which is set in 1891, in Wyoming, I had written that Ellen was wearing a ‘poke bonnet‘. They said that ‘poke bonnet‘ was unfamiliar to readers today and would pull the reader out of the story, and they advised me to say just ‘bonnet’, especially as my mention of ribbons immediately afterwards made it very clear what a poke bonnet was. I took their advice and deleted ‘poke‘.

A poke bonnet

The second criticism came from my Friend in the North, who reads every word that I write. She’s a brilliant reader to have because she always tells me the truth. I had written that the homestead was surrounded by a ‘buck fence‘. This is a triangular style of fencing that is still found throughout Wyoming. She criticised the use of ‘buck‘ for the same reason that the OWG had queried ‘poke‘. So again I took the advice I’d been given and deleted ‘buck‘.

a buck fence, a style of fence that is common in Wyoming

A few chapters later, my FITN questioned the fact that I’d written that Ellen made ‘bean porridge‘ for lunch. She felt that the use of  ‘porridge‘ conjured up images of Quaker Oats, and that I’d be better substituting ‘porridge‘ with ‘stew’. Now, I’m not sure about this.

Bean porridge isn’t a stew – it’s more like a porridge in consistency than a stew and it cooks in less time.  It’s very similar to something eaten widely today in the Midwestern US – cornmeal mush, a kind of corn pudding, or porridge, which is often eaten with maple syrup.

cornmeal mush, popular today in the Midwest

Poke‘ and ‘buck‘ both described something, so could be deleted without any change in meaning, but ‘porridge‘ is the thing itself, and given the circumstances in which my characters found themselves, they are more likely to have had a porridge than a stew.

However, it doesn’t matter at all in terms of the story which they had – it’s just a period detail.

This is a dilemma  that I’m likely to encounter frequently as I write the novel so I’d be very grateful for your advice. Should I stick with ‘bean porridge‘ or should I change it to ‘stew‘?

  • Rebecca Leith:

    How about using the word ‘gruel’ which is familiar enough not to need explanation and would seem to describe the dish adequately enough. Do let us know what you decide.

  • I absolutely would keep them all because they ring with authenticity. With bean porridge all it could need is someone looking at the mess of mashed beans on their plate before saying something. Poke bonnet is not unfamiliar. It is set in the AmericN West so that one is obvious. Buck fence , well either qualify by incorporating the qualification as with bean porridge subtlety or drop buck.

    • Liz:

      Thank you, Carol and Bex.

      I’m not sure about ‘gruel’, Bex. In all my reading about the period, I’ve never come across ‘gruel’ as something that they ate.

      Carol, I shall have to think about that. You may be right about ‘poke’.

      Thank you both for your comments.

  • Chris Nickson:

    In my experience, if you’re setting a novel in the US you should use the American terminology, with perhaps something to illustrate the meaning where needed. After all, you’d use gotten instead of got, wouldn’t you? The idea is to have the reader there; if you use the wrong terminology it simply makes it seem that you don’t know what you’re talking about. And your bean porridge is probably a descendant of the pottage so common in England for many centuries.

  • I’m with Carol. It’s about voice – as long as the context is there, the words themselves should feel organic to the whole. I’ve heard of a poke bonnet, though I wouldn’t have known precisely what it looked like. But does that matter? I’ve never heard of a buck fence, but again, does it matter? They’re both part of the whole. And so with bean porridge. I think you have to write as you write, and not worry about such things, otherwise you’ll be constantly questioning yourself and that will get in the way of the story-telling.

    • Liz:

      Thank you, Chris and Zoe, for that excellent advice.

      I want my novel to be as authentic as possible, which is why I’ve spent so much time researching the period, and will be going to the place where I’ve set the novel this summer.

      And yes, Chris, I do use gotten, rather than got.

      Thank you.

  • I agree, I think you should keep them all. I love reading small details like this in historical novels, they add a depth and richness to the reading experience. It’s not as though the reader will be completely at sea, either; if you don’t know what a poke bonnet is, at least you know it’s a bonnet. Ditto the buck fence.

    As for the bean porridge, my only concern would be whether American readers know the word ‘porridge’ since they always call oatmeal porridge ‘oatmeal’. However, if you think the word is authentic and that readers understand it, by all means stick with it. Again, even if they don’t know what porridge is, it’s obvious it’s a dish of beans.

    Hope that helps.

    • Liz:

      It does help, Jane; thank you very much for your advice.

      Bean porridge is authentic. I’ve found it in the books, letters, diaries I’ve read that are written at that period, or shortly after it.

  • Put them all back, Liz. You are writing this book with an American voice, therefore you should be using the correct terminology for the place and time. Ridiculous to do anything else. Nothing wrong with making people think!

  • For what it’s worth. I really believe you should include ‘poke’ & ‘buck’ and ‘bean porridge’. When I read a period book, I want to learn something, not have everything reduced to a grey generic. Isn’t this a form of dumbing down? I know that one wants to be accessible, but a reader will leap fences surely if they love the story. IMO they will love the story more if it is rich in period detail. Surely one wants to fully enter that new strange world and I believe that these things create a rich context.

    I wrote a full length film script (never produced) set in Canadian North about a woman trapper and hope one day to turn it into a novel, so I’ll be very interested to follow your progress

    p.s. I like the sound of your book and want to get my hands on it. Pass the bean porridge.

    • Liz:

      Thank you, Nan and Jan.

      I am so glad that you think this – it goes with what I’ve wanted to do from the outset, and it’s why I’ve spent a lot of time researching the period.

  • I’d definitely keep porridge – personally I don’t have any issue with the meaning there. I’ve never seen or eaten bean porridge, but I can picture what it’s likely to mean without difficutly. I think I’d keep buck too – if the setting’s historical and overseas I’d expect some unfamiliar language and, as other have said, it gives a ring of authenticity.

    Personally, I would agree about cutting “poke” though, simply because, not knowing the meaning, I read “poke bonnet” and my instant mental picture is of a pointy shaped hat, which is not what you’re aiming for at all. If I was reading the book, I’d probably reread the paragraph/sentence and realise that my brain was being dim but it would pull me out of the story.

    Ultimately, it’s your book though…

    • Liz:

      That’s interesting advice, Alison. Thank you for it. You feel about ‘poke’ in the same way as did the Oxford Writers’ Group.

  • Mandie:

    Bean porridge is what it is, it’s not a stew, so would keep it. Would also keep ‘poke’ because it is a poke bonnet. Inclusion or omission of ‘buck’ would simply depend on what flowed from the pen, as it were, when writing. Your novel, your call.

  • Barbara Alderton:

    Hmmm – not sure I agree with your Oxford chums, Liz.

    ‘Poke’, ‘buck’ and ‘porridge’ all add authenticity, colour, and richness to the text, and none, with all due respect, are difficult to understand. Moreover, they anchor your story to a specific time and place. It’s these small, unusual details that transport the reader into the past, and is one of the many reasons why I love reading historical fiction.

    What an interesting and thought-provoking debate! :o) x

    • Liz:

      I think that the prevailing trend in the comments is to feel as you do. I, too, like the touches that root a novel firmly in the past. Many thanks for that.

  • Henriette Gyland:

    As a reader the phrase “bean porridge” wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. If that’s what it’s called, then that’s what they eat. However, it did bring to mind the bean stew they cowboys are eating in the film “Blazing Saddles”, and perhaps that’s not quite the scene you want to set 😀

    • Liz:

      In that case, how fortunate that there are no sound effects when reading a book! Of course, if it went to audio books …

  • If the language is authentic for the time, then keep it. No one reads a novel set in 1891 Wyoming if it may as well be a generic novel set anywhere and in any era. Plus the more intriguing terms will just fascinate readers and have them looking them up! The only thing I would say is don’t let it become so dialectic or dense that it swamps the story, but the odd authentic phrase or term here and there, great!

  • One of the issues I have with modern bonnet dramas is exactly that – too modern! In the drive to become popularist, they have lost most of the exquisite language of the original novels. Even the costume and set integrity is not what it was.

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for that excellent advice. I think you have hit the nail on the head, if you’ll forgive the modern cliché.

  • Linora Lawrence:

    I agree with Nan Bovington on this one. I too want, and expect, to learn something from a period novel. I didn’t know about buck fences, now I do, though admittedly from your illustration. I guess it is a question of hitting the middle ground and not over-stuffing your text with olde wordes to the point where they get in the way of the story. On the other hand if you cut out every word some reader may not have come across you will end up with “the cat sat on the mat”. Eveyone will have a different take on the matter. I would stick with what your research has shown you. You tell a tale beautifully, Liz, go with your own style and instinct. It will be well worth reading, I am positive.

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for that, Linora.

      Yes, I’d find it difficult to reconcile myself to ‘The cat sat on the mat’. I’d have to add at least an adverb or three!!

  • I’m with everyone above who said ‘keep all three’. I’ve encountered poke bonnets before, probably in stories set in the same era written by Americans. If they can use it, why can’t you? As for fences and porridge, they add to the period, and location, feel. Without this kind of detail a story can be set anywhere, anytime.

  • margaret james:

    I think you should keep all the words, Liz. As other commentators have pointed out, these terms and others like them add period flavour to historical fiction, and they give the reader a sense of being there. I’ve heard of poke bonnets and bean porridge. But, if I hadn’t, I could have looked them up.

    I find Americans and Americanisms fascinating. Who are these people who eat grits? Who mix biscuits with gravy? Who have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches? My DD1 lives in Minnesota and, although she hasn’t lost her British accent, she now speaks fluent Amerenglish. So I just have to deal with it, yeah, right? American authors, both of historical and contemporary fiction, make no concessions to ignorant Brits…

    • Liz:

      I have to confess, when I lived in the States, I LOVED peanut butter & jelly sandwiches!

      Many thanks for adding to the discussion, Margaret.

  • Christina Courtenay:

    Liz, I think you should keep the expressions you’d used because they add an authentic feel to the text. If it’s something you think the reader will definitely be unfamiliar with (like the buck fence), then find some way of describing it without actually having the heroine give an explanation, like “because of the stiff breeze, her skirts caught on the triangular section at the top of the buck fence, making her annoyed …” or something. Ditto the porridge, add something to the effect that she was stirring the “glutinous yellow mess” or whatever so the reader can visualise it.

    I would have thought most people knew what a poke bonnet was, but maybe that’s just me?

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your advice, Christina. It look as if I’ll be retaining the words; that’s the way it’s been going. I’ve found the comments most interesting and helpful.

  • Kit Domino:

    I’m with the rest, Liz. You should keep them all in. They bring an authenticity and realism to the period of the story – helps bring it alive. I’ve certainly heard of all three.

    PS: Good luck with The Road Back. Am looking forward to reading it.

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for that, Kit. I think your suggestions are in line with the majority. I’m so grateful for all of the advice I’ve received.

  • Kate Johnson:

    I’m with the majority here Liz: anything you can do to increase the “flavour” of the book sounds good.

    I’ve also had comments on terms used in my books (never from readers of the end product, but from anxious beta readers and editors who worry the terms won’t be understood). On the one hand I can see their point, that perhaps not everyone will know what a buck fence is, so perhaps I should explain it. But OTOH your heroine does, and she’s not going to try and explain it to herself or anyone else present. This is what Jenny Crusie calls an “As you know Bob,” moment!

    I agree with Christina, that perhaps a subtle explanation, perhaps to do with an action or thought, might help. “The buck fence, which to her had always looked like a line of wigwams marching down the field,” or similar (argh, is wigwam the term, or is it teepee? I don’t speak American West!).

    Still, take heart. I once had an American editor query the reference to a song in my book. She asked if it was by some British band no American would know, or perhaps it was too modern for the majority of readers. “It’s by the Beach Boys,” I replied, and she said no more on the matter!

  • At the risk of being jonny-come-lately, I agree wholeheartedly with everyone who urged you to keep all three in.

    Anybody who’s read Georgette Heyer and that’s gazillions, knows instantly what a poke bonnet is. You get things like “her bonnet with a fashionably high poke”. And anybody who hasn’t and wants to know will look it up. Learning is an instrinsic part of the enjoyment of reading.

    Your expressions add colour, flavour and atmosphere to the story – that’s what sets it aside. I’ve had experts criticise some of my Latinisms, but beta readers , the people who buy and devour books, remember! – love them.

  • Hi Liz

    I’m in the keep ’em all camp. I’ve never seen a poke bonnet before, but I’ve read about them and imagined something like your picture. Buck fence, bean porridge – new to me, but adds to the richness of the language used. I wouldn’t bother to explain them either unless it’s important to the plot that they correct fence is used as I can use my imagination. Reading new words in books is one way we expand our vocabulary so heaven forbid it gets dumbed down to words everyone understands.

    • Liz:

      Thank you for that, Sarah and Alison.

      You are definitely among the majority. I must confess to being delighted about that. I want it to be as authentic as possible, hence my trip to Wyoming this summer where I shall stay on a ranch for some of the time. (Every time I think of it, I start to walk with a bow-legged gait!).

  • It took me time to read all the tips, but I clearly loved the post. It proved to be very helpful to me and I’m certain to all of the commenters here!
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  • Penny:

    I *love* reading novels that give the gift of interesting words, even when I can’t define them straight away. How else would I find out about sailing a ship-of-the-line, running an outlaw gang or…wearing a poke bonnet [btw I do know what that means!], for that matter? I suppose it’s possible to have too much of a good thing sometimes, but these words are good for writers and readers, in my opinion.
    Thanks for this post! [read via Sarah Duncan’s blog]
    Penny [aka Lucy Charles]

    • Liz:

      Many thanks for your comment, Penny.

      I, too, when reading a novel set in the past, love to pick up a new vocabulary. My only provisos are that I want the ‘new’ word to qualify something I recognise or else that its meaning is made fairly clear in the body of the text so that I’m not pulled out of the world of the fiction.

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