Monday, November 21, 2022

Escaping into the story

Annamaria on Monday

The most important thing to me as a reader is to escape into the story. I want from a novel that feeling that I have left where I am, and in a way, even who I am, and that I am now somewhere else, with people who are doing something really interesting. The most important thing to me as a storyteller is to create a story in which a reader can get lost. As a writer, I do everything I can to make the story flow in such a way that it never throws the reader off and drags the reader out of the story.

There are lots of pitfalls in storytelling that can give the reader pause.  Sentences that don't flow easily or are constructed in such a way the that reader must puzzle over what is happening. Or just plain mistakes like using "infer" when the writer means "imply."

Deeper problems might involve one of the protagonists doing something completely out of character, given what the story has told the reader about her as a person.  Or just wrong headedness, as for instance, in a story I read that took place in Rome. The characters took more than an hour to get from Castel Sant'Angelo to Piazza Navona, a distance that would take not more than a ten-minute walk. That sort of thing makes me want to throw the book across the room. It's fiction. If I'm supposed to believe it in it, I need to find it convincing.

We historical novelist face many other potholes that can make staying in the story a bumpy ride for our readers. We have to always be on the lookout for anachronisms. If the setting is Ancient Rome when there are no clocks, the characters cannot plan to meet at 2 AM. If the setting is the American Revolutionary War, the characters cannot fight with rilfles.

We must be particularly careful about what words we put in the mouths of historical characters. For instance, in researching the first book of my Africa series, I turned – as I often do to memoirs, in this case of people who had feet on the ground in British East Africa in the 19-teens.  I found one in which a man recounted his life as a British policeman.  What a gold mine for me.  He told an anecdote about dealing with some drunkards who were shooting up a bar. I borrowed his experience and gave something very similar to my fictional policeman, Justin Tolliver. The real policeman, in telling his story, used the phrase "they got the drop on me." A phrase that was evidently familiar at that time. But here's the thing: to a 21st-century reader, that phrase sounds too modern for my story that takes place in 1911. I knew I couldn't use it without making me reader stop to wonder whether that phrase was anachronistic. I couldn't take that chance. So, Justin thinks that the bad guy "got the advantage" of him. 

There are lots of phrases that we use all the time that have been around for decades, if not centuries. The fact that a historical novelist can prove that they are of the time is irrelevant. The important thing is will the reader see them and just keep going, or will the reader, instead of getting on with the story, suddenly become more interested in whether or not that phrase belongs.

Here are some phrases that have been around for a long time.  What do you think? Would they seem out of place in stories that are set in the times they were first used?


Turn a blind eye

In 1801 a superior officer flagged Horatio Nelson, to withdraw during the battle of Copenhagen.  The story goes that Nelson, who was blind in one eye, held up his telescope to his bad eye and, having not seen the order, fought on.

Crocodile tears

In the 14th century, a traveler named Sir John Mandeville wrote, in a book about his travels in Asia, "these serpents sley men and eat them weeping..."

Spill the beans

In the time of Alexander the Great, votes were taken by having the decision makers put one of two colored beans into a vase – white for yes or black or brown for no.  Spilling the beans out and counting them revealed the winner. What would you think of an author of a story set in Alexander's time who had a foot soldier say, "He spilled the beans."

Three Sheets to the Wind

This term for being out-of-control drunk harkens back to the days of sailing ships. If the ropes that held the sails (sheets) in place were not properly fastened, but were blowing around in the wind, the ship was not under proper control.

Skin of your teeth

This sounds pretty modern to me, but it's really used in the book of Job in the Old Testament.

Raining cats and dogs.

This first appeared in the 1710 poem "Description of a City Shower" by Jonathan Swift!  But I know it would be a big mistake for me to put these words in the mouth of a character in the 17th century nove.

A little bird told me

This image started with Ecclesiastes in the Bible, but it was Shakespeare, who really made it popular. 

Red letter day

This phrase actually comes from the Medieval Book of Common Prayer, where holy days were noted in red ink. 

So, as you can see, we historical novelists, have to watch our word choice. Otherwise, we would have our characters biting the bullet before there were firearms or flying by the seat of their pants before they were airplanes.


  1. Thank you , Ovidia! I too love learning where the everyday phrases come from. Tons of them are from Shakespeare. Even “Knock knock… 🙃. AA

    1. Don't you long to read a mystery featuring teenaged Will Shakespeare and his annoying 'knock knock' jokes and the tall tales he keeps telling?

    2. As someone commented, "Shakespeare is just a collection of old cliches!"

    3. Hilarious, Michael. You started my day with a smile!