When writing about African-Americans in a different era...

is it right to use out-dated words like Negro, Mulatto? Not talking about racists speaking in this context. Just ordinary characters living in 1940's--I think it is correct, to do anything else wouldn't ring right. However I still feel uncomfortable about it! Thoughts?

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I don't see how you could avoid it. Or why you'd want to.

One of the things that makes historical fiction so wonderful is when it captures the sense of the time. And that means everything. From the architecture, the culture and, more importantly, the dialog. If the characters are in the 1940's and they all sound like they're from Berkeley today it's not going to work.

I think it's inevitable that we're going to bump into those things that make us uncomfortable while we're writing. Whether using slang terms, or depicting a particular death, or having a sex scene. The thing is if it doesn't work for the piece or doesn't achieve what you want it to, then it needs to change.

So I think you should use the slang of the time that's appropriate for the characters you're writing. Not everyone speaks King's English, after all. If you don't you run the risk of the story not ringing true.
thanks so much for that, Stephen. you're right. one thing i do a lot is I watch old movies--and you hear stuff that makes you cringe.
see, they show things in the U.K. that frankly, I don't think they show anymore in America. films where no one's cut out phrases like: "free white and 21."
or lines like: "who's the Chinaman and so on. they leave it in because they're purists--they don't want to hack up films by cutting.
I see it in books, i read of the period as well, but it is more jarring from film.
cringe making, but i have to be truthful or it's going to read like a lot cow pats.
thanks again!
You might want to check out the Benjamin January series by Barbara Hambly for an example of something that works. The character is a Creole in New Orleans in 1833. Trained as a surgeon in Paris he comes back home and has to deal with the racism of the time.

It's very well done and she handles the kinds of issues you're talking about very well. All of the characters are people of their time. The first one is A Free Man of Color.
very good. thanks. will check that out. just went on website. just ordered it from Amazon uk! great! you're terrific.
The language of the time and location is an excellent way to keep the reader locked into that time and location. To do otherwise risks losing the flavor you're looking for.
you're quite right, it's just cringe making sometimes. but that's me.
I think you should use the phrases that they used in that time period. You're right--it wouldn't ring right not to.
thanks cyndi. just writing now as it happens. and i have one character say: HOW ABOUT SOME CHINX (CHinese food). yes, it does make it come alive. and sound real.


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