Bygones

Today we have a recommendation for a useful website from WF member Dave Smith. And a little historical perspective.


Bygones

By Dave Smith

The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine that in its heyday towered by size over others in the rack and often had a cover by Norman Rockwell, popped into my life a few weeks ago.

While cleaning out the back room (one of those Covid-generated activities) I found a book that contained short stories from the Post, and vaguely remember picking it up at a book exchange sometime in the past. The title is Mystery and Suspense and the subtitle is Great Stories from The Saturday Evening Post. It’s not a recently published book. The last printing was 1976.

The book contains sixteen stories, and since the Post was such a quality magazine for a hundred-plus years, I thought I had found a nugget to read and learn about great writing.

One of the stories was ‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allen Poe. Yes, because the Post began in 1821, Poe could indeed have been a contributor.

The cat story was good, but Poe tends to write superfluously and pleonastically (he uses big words, and a lot of them). I think it may have been because writers often got paid by the word in those times.

I decided to pick a more recent story for my next read, ‘Pen in Hand’ by Ben Ames Williams, dated 1933. This turned out to be a cozy mystery, set in a backwoods country village, and the protagonist was an elderly lady who lived by herself on a ridge a few miles from town, and who once a week hooked up her horse to the buckboard and went to town. She was Grandma Ankers, referred to locally as Marm.

The story was intriguing, and I got caught up in trying to solve it, as this is what mysteries do to you. But the writer in me began to notice a verbose style and unusual dialogue tags. That’s okay, the story was good. Then near the end I came across a dialogue tag I don’t usually see. Here it is, after Marm had solved the puzzle, she spoke:

“There!” she ejaculated. “Sheriff I dunno what you think, but that’s enough for me.”

Every book about writing published in the past forty years has derided such tags—no, even longer if you consider the Elements of Style by our buds Strunk and White. And yet here it was, in the Saturday Evening Post no less.

Did the Post have editors? Did people talk like that back then?  Even though as used here it is technically correct, wouldn’t another word have been less interruptive?

I had to find out, so I did what any reasonable person does today—Google. And damned if I didn’t find something really cool and useful for us writers.

It’s called Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Maybe I’m showing my ignorance here, and I apologize for that, but this is one interesting tool I was not aware of. Ngram takes any word, phrase, or group of words, and can show relationships, usage in writings over time, and a hundred other too-deep-for-me things. And then Google puts it into a graph form which can cause one to exclaim, “Aha.”

The answer to my question was yes, ejaculated was used as a dialogue tag in many stories from the early 1800s to about 1940.

If your writing involves history, Ngram could help determine the written usage of a particular word at any time in the past. And even better, Ngram will show you the exact books and passages they found to support their data.

I now realize I was born 100 years too late. Today the golden  rule is to use he said or she said, with an occasional whispered or shouted if absolutely necessary, and yet in the not too distant past one could sell to a national magazine a story containing words like *insert your favorite*. I can write stuff like that, and would have made a fortune selling my stories, if only I had not been misplaced in time.

But all is not lost even if bygone words are bygones.

From where the sun now stands until forever, whenever I am disgusted with my writing, when the words smell so bad even my wife turns up her nose at them, when I am positive I am the worst ever, when I want to fast-ball my coffee cup—or beer bottle—through the glass patio door, when I want to throw open the window and shout I can’t take it anymore, when I want to stab my writing hand with a pencil to keep me from using it to waste my time, when I want to crumple up my computer and toss it into the wastebasket, when the deepest depth of despair threatens my sanity, … at those times I promise I will remember Marm ejaculating in the Saturday Evening Post.

And the black clouds will part, and the writers’ sun will shine on me once more.


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