I’m writing an erotic romance short right now that’s set in approximately-Regency England. It has a fantasy slant to it – an incubus, to be precise – but it’s definitely outside my usual range. Which means… All-new research!
“Yaaay,” she typed weakly.
Actually, I love doing research, most of the time. There are a few exceptions. I’ve been working on a space opera for ages, and while I love the characters and the plot and so much of the setting, I loathe doing the chemistry and physics legwork. Ugh, lasers!
But even when there’s math (my ancient foe!) involved, I do love learning new things. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve learned about age of sail warfare, blacksmithing, codes and code-breaking, and more ways to grievously wound a hero and have him survive than you can shake a stick at. I’ve also brushed up on my knowledge of founder effects and other biological oddities, improved my Latin, and spent some time working out how a professional researcher would do her work (kind of meta, isn’t it?).
Somehow, I’ve avoided using dictionaries as research aides in any serious way until now, though. But since I’m writing a story that takes place in an actual historical setting (as opposed to a second world fantasy setting, for example), I have to be more careful with my word use than I usually am. The Oxford English Dictionary has come to the rescue more than once, giving me dates of usage for various meanings of various words. But what’s even more fun than that, I’m learning, is looking at dictionaries that are roughly contemporary to the time period I’m writing.
I found one at Project Gutenberg that is fascinating, informative, and hilarious: the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue .
One of the gentleman who contributed apparently went by the name of “Hell-Fire Dick,” which gives an idea right at the outset of what the text will be like. It’s been fun to see some of the language that didn’t make it into many of the novels that form part of our literary canon from that period. And while a fair number of the entries seem a little too over-the-top to have been in common usage (if they were really in usage at all), they’re certainly entertaining. I think my favorite has to be the definition for “Carvel’s Ring”:
The private parts of a woman. Ham Carvel, a jealous old doctor, being in bed with his wife, dreamed that the Devil gave him a ring, which, so long as he had it on his finger, would prevent his being made a cuckold: waking he found he had got his finger the Lord knows where.
Though I was also deeply impressed by the entry for “sh-t sack” (the bowdlerizing is the author’s, not mine):
A dastardly fellow: also a non-conformist. This appellation is said to have originated from the following story:—After the restoration, the laws against the non-conformists were extremely severe. They sometimes met in very obscure places: and there is a tradition that one of their congregations were assembled in a barn, the rendezvous of beggars and other vagrants, where the preacher, for want of a ladder or tub, was suspended in a sack fixed to the beam. His discourse that day being on the last judgment, he particularly attempted to describe the terrors of the wicked at the sounding of the trumpet, on which a trumpeter to a puppet-show, who had taken refuge in that barn, and lay hid under the straw, sounded a charge. The congregation, struck with the utmost consternation, fled in an instant from the place, leaving their affrighted teacher to shift for himself. The effects of his terror are said to have appeared at the bottom of the sack, and to have occasioned that opprobrious appellation by which the non-conformists were vulgarly distinguished.
Isn’t research fun?