When writing a period piece, whether that period is past or present, getting your terminology right is essential to maintaining the illusion. It’s also one of the easiest things to miss on a revision. Lest you think the following rant is thoroughgoing self-righteousness, let me preemptively explain that it’s not. It’s actually hypocrisy. You see, in the story I recently sold to Steampod, for example, the alternate history it takes place in had a different name for the appliance we call a “freezer,” and yet there was an instance where I unconsciously reverted to my native tongue, as it were.
Often, fantasy and historical fiction falls prey to this far too easily, because we don’t often question where certain expressions in our language come from. For example, you wouldn’t want to describe a complete package as “Lock, Stock, and Barrel” if the story you’re writing takes place before the seventeenth century when the musket became widespread in Europe. The reason? “Lock, stock, and barrel” are the three major components of a musket, and all three together means that you have everything you need to assemble one.
This kind of thing can shatter the illusion that you work hard to create, as it did for me in Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers” during the sloppiest moment in the film. At the battle of Helm’s Deep, Aragorn commands a brigade of elf archers to “fire” on the enemy. I can’t emphasize this enough: nobody in the history of the world has ever fired an arrow. The notion of “fire” being synonymous with “activate” was nonsensical before the invention of the first ever fire-powered weapon, the cannon in the 13th century in China (not introduced into Europe until much later). Even so, archers were not commanded to “fire” until many generations after bows, arrows, ballistas, catapults, and crossbows ceased to be used in military combat. When commanding archers, the term is “loose” or, less frequently, “release,” “arrow,” or “trip” – NOT “fire.”
To further the historical literacy among fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, I recommend bookmarking the phrase finder and using it frequently when writing and proofreading. A good etymological dictionary and slang dictionary wouldn’t hurt either.