I was fascinated when my first copyeditor told me that “main force” comes from the French for “force of hand” and it was therefore inappropriate for me to have a character kick someone with main force. (It was a fantasy novel, and I was young. Forgive me.) At the time I was teaching a creative writing workshop, and I shared my new and exciting insight with the class, adding similar niceties, such as how “nit-picking” refers to the eggs of lice and is not to be confused with knit-picking the fuzz balls off of sweaters, and a “strait jacket” is not straight but tight, like the Straits of Magellan or the Biblical “strait and narrow path,” which is not straight either. I went on to explain what it meant to be on “tenterhooks,” meaning the hooks on which canvas is stretched to make tents, having nothing to do with fishhooks or tenderness. And I was just about to explain that “spitting image” is ludicrous, the old term being “spit (spirit) and image,” when a student raised her hand and asked plaintively, “Do we have to know all this stuff to be a writer?”
At the time I became speechless, slack-jawed with astonishment at the apparent fact that she did not want to know “all this stuff.” But once I got home and had time to mull over what she had said, in bed, which is where I do my best mulling (not a mixed metaphor; “mulling” as cogitation is simply a homonym for the process of heating, sweetening or spicing beverages such as wine) – once I had time to consider, ponder, and ruminate (metaphor of cows?), YES, I decided, writers should know all this stuff, or at the very least they should want to know it. What had taken me so very much aback, or by surprise (note to self: look up “aback”) was that anyone who wanted to be a writer should ask such a question, because how could anyone possibly want to be a writer if she did not like words?
(“To take aback” turns out to be a nautical metaphor, referring to the wind pushing against the wrong side of sails and sending the ship backwards. It does not, as I had conjectured, refer to being attacked from behind. I am relieved to have cleared this up in my own mind.)
My first copyeditor has long since given up the ghost (or perhaps her spit) and I have had oodles of copyeditors since, and I still welcome every new word or nuance of words I can learn from them. To be a writer one must like words. Arguably, one must love them. And to love them means to learn and respect their nuances, their connotations, and their derivations so as to choreograph them to best effect.
Here are some worthwhile words from my big, new novel, Dark Lie: candor, verity, fulcrum, malar (referring to the rash on my protagonist’s face; she has lupus) and Mylar (balloons). Ascenders, descenders, arcades and garlands as jargon of handwriting analysis. Sociopath as differentiated from psychopath. Psychopomp, meaning shaman without the tribal connotations.
Prismatic, luminous, pellucid, limpid lake of light – all are words that might be used to describe the near-death experience. But I guess maybe the more important words in Dark Lie are simpler: daughter, mother, danger, suspense, dark, secret, love.
Nancy Springer has written fifty novels for adults, young adults and children, in genres that include mythic fantasy, contemporary fiction, magical realism, horror, and mystery — although she did not realize she wrote mystery until she won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America two years in succession. Dark Lie is her first venture into adult suspense.
Born in New Jersey, Nancy Springer lived for many decades near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, of Civil War fame, raising two children, writing, riding horseback, fishing, and birdwatching. In 2007 she surprised her friends and herself by moving with her second husband to an isolated area of the Florida panhandle, where the birdwatching is spectacular and where, when fishing, she occasionally catches an alligator.