Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tackling Anachronisms

As a reader, I love entering the past. Letting go of the modern world, losing myself in whatever time frame the book is set--what a delight! I can completely forget the complexities and annoyances of the twenty-first century, unless----
-------SCREECH! CRASH!---------
I'm suddenly catapulted out of the past by an anachronism.

What's an anachronism, you ask? From the Greek ana not and chron time, an anachronism is a reference to some word, object, character or the like that doesn't belong in the story's time-frame. It can be something simple, like referring to the hero's cell phone, when the hero is living in 1977, or having a totally fashion-conscious heroine of an 1880 romance wearing a bustle.

Eliminating anachronisms from writing can be tricky. Half the time they sneak in without our even realizing it. Sometimes our proofreaders don't catch them. The editors can miss them. In fact, we may never know we've used one until the first letters from readers arrive. And readers can be really irate!

Some I've run across lately include using the honorific Ms. in historical novels before the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ms. first came into more common usage. Finding a heroine referred to as Ms. Smith in a book set in the early 1900s throws me right out of the book. That's not to say I won't go back and read it, anyway, especially if I like the characters and the plot, but it makes it harder for me to let go and enjoy it the way I would if the heroine were Miss Smith before her marriage and Mrs. Jones afterward. (Or whatever the surnames are. You get the point.)

Honorifics should be easy. Something a little trickier is wildlife. I'm currently reading a mystery novel in a series set during the American Civil War (AKA the War Between the States). One of the two main protagonists was in a graveyard when she was startled by a flock of starlings. She wasn't as startled as I was! The first mating pair of European Starlings was brought to the United States by some misguided soul in 1891 or thereabouts, some thirty years after the novel was set. Now if the author had had the protagonist startled by a murder of crows, I wouldn't have put the book aside until I recovered from the experience.

Sometimes anachronisms are the result of our forgetfulness. We simply don't think about whether or not something was available or invented by a certain time, and even doing basic research may not reveal it to us. What can we do about it? Read books that were written in the time period, if available. (Obviously, it's harder to get hold of a novel written in Old Norse or ancient Greek.) Check into wildlife books, flora as well as fauna. (I still smile when I think about the American Robin in the 1960s movie "Mary Poppins." That isn't truly an anachronism, but a related faux pas.) If you can find them, read wildlife books from the time frame in which you are interested. Over time, migration patterns and nesting areas can change. Species that are extinct now may have once been prevalent, like the American Passenger Pigeon.

Technology is another bugbear. Yes, there were clocks in the Middle Ages. No, they did not have minute hands. And forget about second hands! Different parts of the world developed at their own pace. You might find steel swords in one part of the world and iron swords in a neighboring kingdom.

Hey, nobody ever said writing historicals was a walk in the park! It's a challenge, but if you're up to it, you may find it a truly rewarding one.

It isn't always easy to research the past on the internet, but it can be your first stop...on your way to the library!


Anita Mae Draper said...

I caught a tweet about your site, Hope and decided to take a look.

I think the anachronism that bugs me the most is the word, peeved.

The origin of this word is 1905-10, yet I've read it in 2 recent books, both historicals, and one was up for an award for best book of the year.

When I mentioned to the author of the latter book how jarring it was to see peeved in a historical, she was of the opinion that it didn't matter. She said something to the effect that we can't be expected to research every word to see if it matched the time period. That same book used 3 other words that were years ahead of their time. And no, it didn't win the award.

Although I still read that author's books because they are highly emotional and entertaining, I won't ever sit in on any of her workshops or attend any courses she may give because, to put it bluntly, I just can't trust her. Historically speaking.

Actually, I discuss this very topic on the Research page of my new website. I also talk about the relevant movie, Somewhere in Time.

btw, I didn't know what anachronism meant until I read your post. I may have to change my research page now. Not sure if I should thank you or bless you for that. lol

Anita Mae.

Hope Chastain said...

LOL! I know just what you mean! That's why research is a double-edged sword. :)

Thank you for bringing peeved to my attention! (I may know whom you mean.) I think all writers of historical fiction (and I include people writing anything before they are old enough to remember clearly, even in their own lifetime) should have an etymological dictionary from the time they are writing. Of course, the first English dictionary was Dr. Johnson's, so that isn't possible for every time frame! A really good dictionary, in my opinion, needs to have the origin of the word and the year, or at least the decade, of its first common usage.

Slang is another pet "peeve" of mine! ;) Most people are unaware that the sixties' "groovy" originated with the invention of phonograph records. It fell out of use during the thirties through the fifties, but picked up again in the late sixties.

Maybe you and I can pool our resources and come up with a website for writers that has a dictionary with dates, places (e.g., used in Canada exclusively, or Australia, or the U.S., etc.). I haven't visited your research page yet, because I wanted to reply right away. If it's as good as I expect it to be, I'd love to link to it from here and also my webpage!

Thank you for commenting!

Hope Chastain said...

PS Love your research page! BTW, the book on which the film Somewhere In Time is based was originally set in the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego County. The filmmakers wanted to shoot it there, but the Hotel is booked year-round, and they couldn't accommodate the crew. The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island closes after the summer season, however, which made it a perfect second choice!

Pan Historia said...

Great post. This really hits the nail on the head in an entertaining and readable fashion.

I have been struggling with teaching my fellow collaborative writers about the dangers of anachronisms for some time now. Some of the most dangerous are in the flow and rhythm of speech. It's so important not to use jarring modern slang.

Thanks for a lucid view of this topic.

Hope Chastain said...

You're welcome! Thank you for your comments, and also for following my blog! :)