A side effect of setting A Bargain Struck in Wyoming Territory, 1887, is that it’s made me more aware of the language we use today.

Obviously, when writing novels set in the past, the historical facts have to be established, such as:

Would a second generation homesteader have running water in the house?

Would it be possible for homesteaders to buy clothes in an isolated, newly developed settlement in the 1880s?

How would they organise their sanitary arrangements (the loos, in other words)?

You may think that it would be easy to find the answers to questions like these, but it isn’t. Had I set the novel earlier in the 1800s, it wouldn’t have been so difficult as much has been written about the lifestyle of the pioneers who travelled in their covered wagons along the Oregon Trail during the 1850s and 1860s, and about the first generation homesteaders, their sodhouses and the hardships they had to endure. However, very little has been written about the changes in the lifestyle and environment of those who lived a generation later.

Sodhouse on the American Prairie. Courtesy of Wikipedia

But it isn’t just the period details that need to be determined, it’s the language, too. We use slang and modern idiom today without even knowing that we’re doing so, and I’ve found that I’m forever opening my dictionary to make sure that my characters don’t use any anachronistic words and phrases.

Because of this, my best friends when I write are:

Chambers Dictionary

Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang


And, of course, the internet. Google  is a wonderful way of discovering the origin of words.

The following are just two of the many things I looked up yesterday – one of which  I could use, and one I couldn’t:

feisty  Couldn’t use it. Not current in US until after 1896. The term derives from the shortened form of fist (pronounced with a long i, as if feist). A fist is a small dog. The typical feist dog had a reputation for being nervous and tempermental, and this is the origin of the adjective.

knee high to a grasshopper  Could use it. It dates from about 1850 – the phrase first appeared in The Democratic Review in 1851.

Unfortunately, not everything is quite so easy to find out; for example, I’ve yet to establish when Honey came into popular usage as a familiar form of address in the US. Happily, though, I shall be going to Wyoming this summer, and I’ll be able to fill in the missing details by visiting the museums there. Reference books are wonderful, but nothing can beat physically exploring the area in which the novel is set.

The Bear River, flowing through the southwest part of Wyoming