The Nature of Words

One of the things I like about my current WIP is the integral connection of nature with the main character. “Annie” moves to an island in Maine, searching for refuge and gets caught up in a mystery.

Annie spends a lot of time on the beach, walking, searching, and finding answers. In the meantime, she observes the moon and the tides and the water. And she is also working outside in the elements.

While Annie has wandered the beaches, I’ve searched the Internet and in libraries—and I’ve done a ton of research for the book. In fact, I have an entire file box full of information and background, backstory.

I’ve learned about the tides: ebbtide, flood tide, ebb and flow, high tide, low tide, clam flats—and much more—about what each of these things means. And my proximity to the coast (five minutes from the type of beaches Annie would walk on) helps me fuel my research and imagination.

And I’ve researched the stars, planets, and the cycles of the moon—I have a calendar where I’ve sketched out when high tides and low tides are and how they interact with the phases of the moon, waxing and waning, sunrise and sunset times. These heavenly changes add to the richness of Annie’s story.

In addition to these terms, I also have researched gardening and house terms—what plants bloom when on the coast, what might be left of a garden from long ago, how to insulate a house, what kind of wood is used for building—intricate details, many of which will never make it into the actual novel, but are the backdrop of Annie’s (and now my) life.

I’ve also researched the history of Maine islands and houses, of bridges and ferries, and people who have lived on the coast for centuries.

One of the reasons I started this blog was because of my love of words (wordsxo loosely translates into word love)—and every piece of research leads me to new words. Just this morning, on a final read through of my manuscript, I was looking up the words “by in large,” an expression I’ve used many times. And when I did, I found out the actual expression is “by and large,” and much to my happy surprise it is nautical in origins—from World Wide Words:

“The phrase by and large in sailors’ parlance referred to all possible points of sailing, so it came to mean “in all possible circumstances.”

And while by and large does not play a large role in my novel—in fact just three words of over 80,000—it’s a well chosen word that I hope adds interest and authenticity to my work.

Further, every word and every piece of information I’ve gathered while writing—much like the shells and sea glass my characters collect on their walks—has shaped this novel, steeped in love of not just writing and research but also love of the beauty of nature along the coast of Maine.

Are you (like me) fascinated with the origin of words? How they’ve changed in meaning over the years? Can you share examples? Writers: How are your research and word choices entwined with your main character’s personality and journey? Have you collected information and done research for your WIP that enriches your life?




  1. lisa ahn says:

    I definitely collect words and phrases, cadences and histories. I’ve started lists or journals of them in the past, but I’m terrible at keeping up with them. I also have the world’s worst memory (made even more shoddy by that recent head injury!), so I’m never sure how much I retain of the specifics. I guess I hope it’s still all in there somewhere, like soup, enriching what I see and do and write.

    As for research, I love it! Sometimes I get carried away, postponing the writing until I’ve got every possible fact nailed down. I wish I were better at writing through what I don’t know and looking it up later, but I tend to need to envision the whole scene, and all its quirky details, before I can write it. I frequently say, in regards to research obsessions, that I’m a vegetarian who can tell you exactly how to butcher a hog. I’m also allergic to bees, but I can tell you pretty much anything you want to know about bee keeping. Those characters are demanding — and, oh so much fun!

    • I know from your blog posts that your stories must be rich indeed in word choice (I think you do such a good job at that!) — I think we have a lot of similarities in word and research interests — agreed, it’s so much fun!

  2. Lisa says:

    Julia, I can’t answer your questions at the moment (beyond saying that I love words and am often looking up their origins) but I can say how much I admire the example you have shown me and your willingness to share your writing journey. Thank you for that.


    • Thank you so much, Lisa — that’s so kind of you to say you admire my willingness to share… I think it’s a “write what I know” kind of thing, but I’m so glad you enjoy!

  3. CMSmith says:

    You have made writing seem like the funnest thing in the world. Fascinating. I’m so glad you took the time to do the research that I’m sure enriches your novel.

    I can’t wait to see it in print.

    Love the name of the main character.

    • I guess if I had to choose one profession that would be “the funnest thing,” writing novels would be it — I hope someday you (and I too!) will be able to see it in print. Then you can let me know how I did…. (p.s. I’m glad you approve of the character’s name… it means a lot!)

  4. What a lovely post! I can sense your enthusiasm for your WIP and the work you have put into it. The more I read about your book and the research you’ve done, Julia, the more I want to read it. I love the idea of finding out more about the tides and moon cycles. It is great to discover new words and their meanings too isn’t it? For me, I think rhythm and choosing exactly the right words matter most. I think years of writing poetry has meant that this is where my focus is, so that my prose is, in fact, quite lyrical, and quite minimalist in places too. If I come across a word I don’t understand, I have to look it up, and find that I use new words in my poems most of all.

    • Thank you, Abi. I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination, and I can only hope to write lyrically (my work is definitely coming along, but it is in progress). Interesting that you’d describe your prose as minimalist, because that’s exactly how I think of mine, too. As for looking up words — so necessary and so interesting. Here’s hoping you’ll (and I’ll) see my book in print…

  5. Sounds like such a beautiful, organic process. Hearing all this makes me want to read your book even more. With all that love you’ve poured into it, I’m sure the reader will be enveloped in love of words and nature (and your love for your character and her story) from the first page.

    The photo of the water (looks like a bay?) is gorgeous too. So serene.

    Did you say your final read-through? Whoo-hoo! Congratulations, Julia. I hope all your love and hard work will be rewarded with the publishing equivalent of an overnight sensation. :~)

    • I suppose you can never tell what readers will enjoy — but I hope I’m writing an intriguing story, something readers will be enveloped in. Yes, final read through, probably today/tomorrow. EEEEKKKKS. Nervous but excited (thanks for the congrats!), and hoping for publication only, overnight sensation would be gravy 🙂 p.s. yes, it’s a photo of Casco Bay, on an island beach, good call!

  6. Indeed, we are on the same page in so many ways, Julia. Cracking up that my post today was “Nature of Nature” and yours “Nature of Words.” It will come as no surprise to you, either, that nature is a character in my novel as well. Or that I’ve done the same kind of laborious, but FUN research as you – only I’ve studied very different topics (I think as a writer, you realize just how much you DON’T know; you start out thinking, “It’s fiction. I’ll make it up.” But the details have to be authentic!) My research always inspires words… sometimes I have no idea how the phrases pop into my head and on to paper.

    I can’t wait to see your novel on the shelves! And I, too, am fascinated by words, word choice, and language. By and large, I’d say most of us writers are ;-)!

    • I know, I know…. that’s too funny about our post titles. I love the different ways writers come at these things, almost as fascinating as words and research! I would wholeheartedly agree that once you start researching you really do realize how much you don’t know and how you can only scratch the surface as a writer/researcher (I used to feel the same way even about the very technical manuals I used to write). I so agree — I have no idea why certain phrases pop into my head either… another really fascinating thing about writing! p.s. it goes both ways… I cannot wait for your novel either. Very exciting.

  7. I’m always amazed at what I don’t know. I’ll start writing a chapter, but to fill it with the details that make it alive, I have to research. It’s fun work and I often get sidetracked, but you never know what information you might need in a later chapter. 🙂

    • That is such a good point, Shary… there is so much I’ve learned that crops up later in another place that I never thought it would! And, like you, I’m constantly amazed at how much I *don’t* know but can’t wait to learn! Such fun!

  8. Lovely post, Julia, and great questions. I did a lot of research of words to write my medieval novel. I wanted the words to have the texture of a different time and place, but not be awkward for the reader. I wanted both the ancient feel of the dialogue, and the exposition, to be subtle and go mostly unnoticed. I also wanted to weed out any really new words that would be jarring and feel out of context to the time. My beta readers have been so helpful in finding those, because of course some slipped beneath my radar…we tend to use words unconciously, mostly.
    I do love looking up the meanings of words. I subscribe to several websites that email new words everyday, and give their genesis, which I often find fascinating.

    • I remember you blogging about word choice, and how much you needed to research for your book — that really does offer special challenges, and it sounds like a very cool process. I’m sure your book is very authentic because of it. I agree, websites with word-a-days are very cool, and I subscribe to some too… just don’t always get around to reading them 🙂

  9. Congratulations, Julia! I hope you will celebrate this feat on the beach with a book, a fire, and MEH! Xx

  10. Chris Fries says:

    Awesome post, Julia!

    I love your love of words, and I’m awed by the amount of research you put into beachology!

    I’m also really looking forward to see your WIP become a WIP (“Wonderfully In Print”)!!!

  11. This was a tough question. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll just say that researching for my book has been a blast. I’ve become enthralled with the Civil War and recently learned a lot about steam engines and how they work. So that whole time period is absorbing me, and the words that come with it have become more a part of my daily life. My family is getting used to me asking questions such as: If a man was riding a horse through the plains, what would be the worst thing that could happen to him– but don’t make it predictable. The answers I get are awesome, but I told them I’m not writing “Cowboys and Aliens.”

    • I’ve done a very very small amount of research about the Civil War, and I agree — fascinating. And I love your description of the questions you pose to your family; what a fun family exercise, and I know exactly what you mean, it becomes such a constant in our minds, doesn’t it? Thanks so much for your comment and your visit to my blog!

  12. Erika Marks says:

    Julia, this post is so wonderful for MANY reasons (the biggest of which is I can’t wait for your novel to land out in the world!!), but would you believe my youngest has been lately asking “Where do words come from?” and it’s been such fun to have that dialog with her and to really think about it.

    As I probably mentioned to you, I had to do a fair amount of research on lighthouses for my next novel and it was truly shocking how little I knew about them as someone from Maine! But I LOVED the research and learned so much.

    • Thanks, Erika — and I absolutely love the question your daughter is asking and the conversations you must have! Some of my fondest memories as my kids grew up was their enthusiasm for reading me something they’d written, talking about it with me, enjoying their thrill of creation and word choice… so amazing. Both still read me what they’ve written in college, and it’s such a joy to hear them speak their words. Of course now that they both have studied advanced science and my daughter’s studied linguistics, I often have no idea what the words mean…that’s another story…

      p.s. I can’t wait to read YOUR new novel…. sounds amazing. And lighthouse research — can we ever know enough??? 🙂

  13. Julia, it’s so interesting to me how much research goes into producing a work of fiction. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot about Maine. Do you think some of your research for your current WIP will inform your future work as well?

    • Such a good question… no doubt my research and information will sneak into things I write when I least expect it…. I have another WIP that takes place in (a different) fictitious Maine town, so no doubt it will come in usefully there. But my next women’s fiction is set (most likely) in the farmlands of Vermont… so it’s a whole different place and industry to research, can’t wait!

  14. Love your words on words, Julia! 🙂

    As I mainly write flash fiction and poems, I don’t need to do quite as much research as you do for 80,000 words of course.
    However, I love it when I’m looking up words, places, objects, people, plants and habits and traditions.
    The works which need the most research are usually my favorite ones.

    I’ve used weeping willows to comment on, and describe my main character’s mood as she sat by a lake.
    I’ve looked up how exactly one needs to carve a pumpkin when I was writing a horror flash (it’s not a custom here in Kolozsvar).
    And I’ve looked up more people and details than I have for any flash before, when I was writing a magical realism piece about a little girl I saw in the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo.

    I really like research, and getting to know my characters!

    • I love your use of weeping willows — what a very cool idea! And I agree, the words and material I research most (for fiction) are also ones that are favorites — that’s such a good point! I’m glad to find another writer who loves research so much, and it’s very cool the way you use objects to characterize mood! Thanks for your comment and your visit to my blog!

  15. Ann says:

    I read this and thought and thought and thought a lot. As a foodie and not a “writer” per se, I have to say that I am always interested in cooking terms. I remember when I was learning how to cook (LONG before the internet) and I would research a word in a recipe to make sure I knew what I was doing. ….and that was before I discovered Larousse Gastronomique. I wish I had one of them when I started! Now the internet makes it very easy and You Tube will show you how!

    I also like to research random facts. If I hear a word or phrase – like you – I enjoy finding out the origins, but when I see something or hear about it and spend DAYS reading about it! I spent 10 days reading about President Lincoln from his death to his final resting place. Did you know he was moved about 10 times after he was buried?

    • Larousse Gastronomique??? I’ve never heard of this and of course now I *must* research it 🙂 I don’t care what you keep saying, Ann, your passion may be cooking, but you are very very much a writer. No question in my mind whatsoever! And proof positive now when you say you enjoy researching words and random facts. Yep. A writer. (p.s. no! I never heard that about Lincoln before — fascinating!)

    • Barb Riley says:

      Wow, Ann… I’m a huge Lincoln fan (is that the right word? Lincolnphile? LOL … fond of all things LIncoln!) and I had no idea about the several moves. Interesting!

  16. Ann says:

    Also, I have to write another comment! Congratulations on finishing! I can’t wait to read your book – you are such a lovely, interesting writer on your blog I can’t wait to see you in print!

  17. I love it when I’m reading a book and come across a really good word–not one that’s necessarily a big vocabulary word, but one that I haven’t thought to use in a while and just hits the nail on the head perfectly. Words and their meanings play a big role in my WIPs, especially because some of my characters are bilingual and choose often choose one language over another for certain situations or even certain phrases.

    I can’t wait to read your book, Julia! Good luck as you venture into the querying phase, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help along the way. That’s what we’re all here for 😉

    • I am very envious that (1) you are bilingual, and (2) some of your characters are. What an added level of interest for the reader — and I love that they choose one language over another in different situations. So fascinating, Natalia! And I’m looking forward to reading it (them). Thanks for your offer of help… no doubt you’ll hear from me 🙂

  18. Barb Riley says:

    Hey.. threaded comments now! woo hoo! I’ve been absent for a while; I must have missed the switchover.

    Yes, words play a big part of my character’s story and journey, as well as my own. Funny how there’s that mysterious crossover. 😉 As (probably?) the lone commenter whose story involves an exploration of faith, my main character will learn a thing or two about word origins going back to the printing of the Bible and possible agendas in translating. It’s a part of her backstory to her shift in her worldview, so the trick for me is incorporating her knowledge into the story without sounding like she’s lecturing. It might get snipped in the end, but it’s still a part of my character’s growth which will affect her decisions/actions throughout the story.

    Can’t wait to read your book! Good luck in the next phase of YOUR journey to publication.

    • YES!!! Finally Blogger has threaded comments, WOOHOO!! I happened to see them on someone else’s blog (I guess they’ve been available for a few months) and I figured out how to set it up… why didn’t “they” tell us???

      And yes, too, to the mysterious crossover between ourselves and our MCs. My MC is a writer, haha, what a coincidence but she is too busy getting her life in gear to learn ANYTHING new. I guess she’s leaving that to me 🙂 I think your story sounds absolutely fascinating, Barb!! The backstory sounds very very interesting, so I’m hoping when your book gets published (and if the backstory IS snipped) you’ll let me read it, please, please?

  19. I do this all the time, and definitely relate. I love looking up word/phrase origins, and am continually surprised where some phrases come from! Just recently I read that, “through a glass darkly,” was from Paul’s epistles in the Bible. (I’m not a Christian, so all Christian word phrases spark that reaction, lol.)

    Your novel sounds awesome, Julia!

    • It’s just so interesting, isn’t it? I always think if I went back to college I might study etymology or maybe linguistics (although my daughter has taken a lot of linguistics, and wow, it’s very rigorous!)… I am also not too familiar with the bible, so I too am sometimes surprised to find phrases that unexpectedly come from there.

  20. Girl Parker says:

    Your novel sounds right up my alley and so interesting! Since I’m wrestling with four different ethnicities in my WIP, voice and word choice are challenging me to no end. Let’s just say, my file is being filled.

    • Glad it sounds intersting to you — hope you’ll get a chance to read it… meanwhile it makes me quake thinking about four different voices (mine is first person in just the MCs voice)… very challenging, I’m sure! You’ll probably end up with 4 file boxes, right? 🙂

  21. Nancy Kelley says:

    When I toured the HMS Victory last spring, the guide filled us in on several common English phrases that came from nautical parlance. One I remember was “three square meals”–the trenchers the Navy used were square, hence square meals.

    I absolutely love to learn about things like this. One of my favorite websites is, which gives the etymology of words and phrases, oftentimes including the first time particular phrases came into use. That’s quite helpful when writing historical fiction, as you don’t want your characters to say something that didn’t come into common usage for another hundred years.

    • I love that story about the trenchers — there’s actually a character in my book who uses a lot of Navy terms, so it’s funny you’d mention it! I don’t know about, but I’ll definitely be checking it out. Awesome because I really need to look something up to make sure it’s accurate! Thanks Nancy!

  22. What I’m hearing in this post is: Sandbar. Also, this is a beautiful description of your love of words. I find origins of words fascinating in how all the different languages are so connected, like they’re all coming from the same place…I still don’t understand where that is. Etymology is what the smart people call it 🙂 Whenever I think about words I just wish I knew another language.

    • You can absolutely be assured that there is a sandbar (maybe even two) in my novel! And believe me, it’s been a challenge to figure out how to describe it. And I so agree with you — would love to speak another language; I think it would be so ineresting to compare words and origins from language to language!

  23. Writing in dialect is fascinating to me. I hear it’s a no, no now (or was then look at the mega-sucess of The Help.) Researching is fun. I’ve down lots on the internet but if I ever get serious about this novel, I need to go down to the paper and read through their archives. Talk about getting some story ideas.

    • I love the idea of reading newspaper archives, I’m a huge fan of ephemera and sometimes get sad doing mostly internet research; luckily we have pretty active historical societies in Maine and I sometimes visit them, too. I also love doing primary research — plenty of people who know much much more about the Maine life than I do. As for dialect, I only have about 8 lines of it in my novel, and most of them are when the person is making a point of emphasizing it and they point it out!!

  24. Your novel sounds like something I would love. I wish we lived close to each other so I could pick your brain about how to move forward with my own novel and what kind of research would be helpful. Are you nearly ready for yours to get a first reading by someone? Or have you already done that?

    • I wish we lived closer by each other too — what fun! Feel free to pick my brain from afar; I love to think about how to research things. As for the novel…. it’s entering the querying stage as we speak (or should I say as I write…). Thank you for the lovely compliment about the novel.