In a couple of recent posts I've been writing about the challenge of making historical fiction "sound" historical. Yes, of course, there is factual history to get accurate, and there is the historically correct physical look that should guide your descriptions; there is contemporary slang that must be avoided in dialogue and even contemporary attitudes with which you should endow your characters only warily and only for specific purposes. (Some argue you should never do this at all.) But there is also the specific words used in the narration. Especially if one is employing a first person narrator, but even if one's narrator is third person, a writer must work to include only language that feels right for the person and the era and struggle against language that finally isn't, at the same time being careful not to create a too cliched historical sound, something that sounds too much like what we expect, for instance, an American puritan to sound like, or an Enlightenment era Englishman, or a nineteenth century servant to the emperor of China. Your characters and your narrators must seem historically accurate and yet never cliches.
This effort becomes all the more complicated when one starts to examine the etymylogical history of specific words. Words one might use without questioning turn out to be "historically challenged," whereas other words that sound thoroughly modern turn out to actually have an extensive literary lineage. This issue is in my mind currently because of revisions I made to a short story set in 1820 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. The narrator is a twelve year old white boy of English descent. One editor who read the story questioned several of my word choices, and quite rightly I should add. For instance, when she saw my narrator make a reference to chocolate she wondered aloud if a young island boy in the early decades of the nineteenth century would have any notion of chocolate at all. And I thought: Damned if I bet she isn't right. I didn't know much about chocolate, but I knew enough to know that. Some simple research revealed that while drinking chocolate was not unknown in the United States prior to the 19th century, chocolate did not become a confection until the 1830s in England; not until the 1850s did Americans taste bonbons, chocolate creams, and hard candies; and not until the invention of milk chocolate in 1875 could chocolate candy become widely affordable and thus consumable by the masses. (My narrator, by the way, was hardly from the upper classes, who were almost the exclusive consumers of chocolate for several centuries.)
This struggle with individual words makes up, for me, some of the most interesting moments of my writing life, and is certainly part of the exciting challenge of historical fiction. But finally, no matter how important accuracy is, it can't only be about the research. Finally what matters is what works for a story. As I once heard in a fiction writing workshop after a class questioned the feasibility of certain events in a student's story and she responded by saying they actually happened, "the truth is no defense." In fiction writing it's what seems truthful, seems possible, seems believable that matters. Because the reader is not going to know or care about the real life events that happened to your best friend or your mother or your dead ex-husband. The reader only knows the characters in your story. Similarly, what seems to fit the characters and the story is the final gauge with which a fiction writer needs to measure his words. But to have his decisions backed up by a little etymological research surely makes him feel better. Believe me, I know.