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‘?