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Anachronisms galore

I recently read a book where relatively early on there’s a glaring anachronism – in this case the main characters are using Playstation, but this is like two decades before Playstation existed. I should probably get over this irrelevant slip and concentrate on the unfolding story, but unfortunately such mistakes dilute the credibility of the characters – at least for me. Having discovered one anachronism, “Eagle Eye Belfrage” is now on the lookout for more, and sure enough, if you find one, you’ll find several. And each and every one of them puts yet another nail into the coffin of this particular read until I at last put the book down and start on another.

Of course, there are degrees to these anachronisms. If the main character in a novel set in Roman Britain happens to break off a snowdrop, I can live with it. If said character starts enthusing about tulips, I’ll be less forgiving. If an Irish family sits down to dine on potatoes and milk in the early sixteenth century, it will make me skeptical. If an English family in the same time frame passes tomatoes round the table, I’ll close the book and never open it again. British sailors tipsy on rum in the sixteenth century didn’t exist – but they were probably tipsy on something, and the ambitious author will take the time to do his/her research and tell us what this might be. (Gin, I’d hazard)

One of my favourite anachronisms is that of a Saxon princess (she has just narrowly escaped being raped by a foraging Norman knight) who stands up, tells this lout of a man she needs no help to get back home, thank you very much (feisty, I like feisty) as it is “only a six kilometre walk”. What? There went that book down the drain – pity, given the rather attractive Norman lout…

People who write historical novels with the purpose of offering entertainment don’t have to be history professors – but they should show their readers the respect of getting the overall facts more or less straight. The odd error is okay – we are all fallible human beings (well, except some of us – at least according to themselves) – just as the odd spelling mistake/typo is easily forgiven if the story as such has you enthralled. But recurring anachronisms, highlighting to the discerning reader just how little the writer knows about the period, sort of disqualifies the book from using the epithet “Historical”. There are other genres such writers can explore and contribute to.

One of the more difficult aspects of writing historical fiction is to step away from your modern concepts – such as equality despite gender. Personally, I do not subscribe to the notion that the women of long ago were timid, submissive types, constantly under the thumb of their husband. You just have to read about formidable (not always likeable, mind you) women such as Bess of Hardwyck, or St Birgitta of Sweden, or Margaret Douglas, paramour of James V, to realise those ladies of auld lang syne were tough. Like boots, and then some. But. Major but. Legally, their husbands could chastise them, beat them, lock them up, force themselves on them. Smart men didn’t do that – but they could. And some of them did… Of course, any woman alive knew this – and was well aware she’d have to tread carefully around the issue of male supremacy.

Likewise, if you’re going to write a book with religious content – however peripheral – make sure you know the basic differences between f.ex Catholics and Protestants. A Protestant would rarely say “Holy Mother of God”, as Protestants have serious doubts as to just how holy the Virgin Mary was. Presbyterians don’t have priests – or bishops (Sorry, apparently not everyone knows that). And just so you know, the Westminster Confession, despite its name, was not drafted either by or for the king – rather the reverse in fact, preceding the unfortunate Charles I death by a mere handful of years. In general, religion in the 16th and 17th century is very confusing – I guess to some extent it always is – what with Calvinists and Huguenots, Lollards, Puritans and other Protestants, Catholics and Recusants, the odd ambitious Jesuit and to add further spice to the pot, the Quakers. To write a book set in these times without touching upon the religious turmoil would be difficult, to say the least.

Then there’s the clothes. NO, there were no zippers! Not until the first decade in the 20th century. I know, I know; this little detail plays havoc with your seduction scene, staring tall, dark and handsome and his deft fingers, oh so gently undoing the zipper that decorates blonde, curvy and winsome’s 17th century dress. But hey. one can have a lot of fun with laces, or with hooks, a long, long row of miniature hooks to be undone one by one.

“She raised her skirts and pulled down her drawers before crouching over the chamber pot.” Full points for the chamber pot, minus for the drawers as this is a sixteenth century lady – well, unless she is Portuguese, or Spanish. These ladies had the benefit of inheriting certain Moorish traditions when it came to dress, and so had pants long before anyone else did. (And if you want to read a book that does an absolutely excellent job of bringing Moorish Spain to life  as concerns dress and food and interiors, I’d recommend the Sultana books by Lisa Yarde. That lady has definitely done her research!)

And then there’s the matter of kilts. Boy, am I tired of anachronistic kilts! Yes, I know we must all blame “Braveheart” for it, and yes, the idea of a rugged highland lord in a kilt does bring out interesting patches of heat all over, but the kilt DID NOT exist before the 16th century. Full stop.

Likewise, it is interesting to note how many of the long gone heroes and heroines – especially in Historical Romance – are fastidious about keeping clean. Ahem. Let me let you in on a secret: most people did not shower (there were none) or bathe more than a couple of times a year. Now, I do believe the human race as a whole enjoys feeling clean, which would argue for that handsome and kilted highland lord now and then braving the frigid waters of the nearby loch to properly clean himself off – but not on a daily basis, unless it was bloody hot and he liked goofing around in the shallows.

Another little irritant is food. The rosy maid is sent off to collect eggs in January. Didn’t happen, as the hens did not lay from about November to March – this is why eggs at Easter is such a big thing. Neither was there milk all year round – cows dry up after numerous months, and one must wait for the next calf before there will be any new milk. Poor labourers in the 17th century did not drink tea as a restorative, neither did they consume potatoes, as this crop was regarded with suspicion. No, the poorer among us lived off porridge. Like all the time … Now that doesn’t make for much of a read does it?

“The wavering light of the tallow candle threw shadows over the table. XX (Insert adequate male name) leaned back, regarding her as she went about her duties in the dark and smoky kitchen. She’d changed her apron, he noted, and there was a newly scrubbed look to her face that made him smile. She peeked at him, he caught her eyes. YY (insert female name of your choice) ducked her head, the hands holding the bowl trembled. At last; here she came. XX shifted on his seat. A sight for weary eyes she was, a strand of dark hair peeping from below her cap, her rosebud mouth quivering with a contained smile. “Porridge,” she said, setting the bowl down. And just like that, XX felt the magic of the moment dissipate. Porridge in a dark and cold kitchen – just like yesterday and the day before.Likely just like tomorrow and the day after. He picked up his spoon and focused on his food.”

Some authors use anachronisms on purpose – and many of them do it with excellent effect, mainly because they’ve already convinced the reader they know their period anyway. One such example is Diane Scott Lewis, who in her book the Defiant Lady of Pencavel has one character saying something about having her knickers in a twist, upon which the defiant lady herself says “we don’t have knickers yet”. That makes me chuckle, settle back in my comfy chair and continue reading.

Ultimately, any book is about the story – and the protagonists, who must leap off the pages and grow into your heart. It’s difficult to develop that relationship with the intended hero/heroine, if the first thing you notice are the things that are wrong – the armwrist watch on a 15th century lady , the casual reference to a sitting room in the 14th century, the miraculous appearance of  a fork – long before it was invented. Or maybe that’s just me.

38 thoughts on “Anachronisms galore”

  1. Thank goodness for great editors with eagle eyes. I wrote a scene mentioning Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a setting two years before he was knighted. My editor caught it and is undoubtedly worth far more than I pay her. :)

    1. Now this is, in my book, a very minor anachronism, and I can bet you the majority of the readers wouldn’t have cared. Had you included him in a setting two years after he died, though…

  2. A wonderful post.
    I write historical romance and it’s so tempting to write the equivalent of ‘the static in the air between two people’ – but resist – My guess is that before electricity ‘static’ didn’t have a name. I could be wrong – but heck – why take the risk? (As well as it being an awful cliche)
    Grace x

  3. Love this post! Anachronisms annoy me. Example from one story I read: someone living in Yorkshire hears that Guy Fawkes has been captured hiding with gunpowder below houses of Parliament. What’s wrong with that? They heard the news about 10 o’clock on the morning after the midnight capture. Wow! News obviously travelled fast in the 17th century!

  4. I remember watching a movie at some stage about the Roman Empire and then I noticed that a couple of the actors had really obvious white marks on their wrists where they’d removed their watches before filming :D It took a bit away from the enjoyment of losing myself in the movie ;)

  5. I certainly agree that obvious errors can spoil the story. For quite a while I loved to nitpick stories and movies, write the authors gently mentioning it along with my honest appraisal of the book/movie. Sometimes I was ignored. Sometimes wound up with a long time correspondence with the author and once asked to technically review the almost ready draft of his next book before printing. I was given credit for a technical review on that one. Wow, did it help my ego at a bad time in my life! It wasn’t a historical novel but a modern techno-thriller. I still nitpick, and my long-suffering wife wishes I’d hold the comments ’till long after.

  6. (applauds) Just once, I’d like to read a description where the hero rubs his hands down the heroine’s arms and legs, thus touching her underarm hair, arm hair, and leg hair…. or picks off some lice from her head.

    1. Hmm. I dare say those lice would be off-putting to a sensitive modern reader. But you’re right, and I am off – right now – to ensure this your wish is included in my ongoing WIP (well, maybe not the lice)

  7. Oh so much I try to avoid here. For Staymaker, there is a scene where (fictional) Arthur is describing his (historical) brother Tom Kingsmill. So, how does describe a sociopath without using the term? Also, a first draft had Arthur being a soldier in India- had to change that by finding a more appropriate regiment and their history.
    So much more to avoid though. Background research is as vital as plot research !

    1. Thank you Andy – and I would say the background research is what is so utterly fascinating. I had no idea I’d find the process of making felt so intriguing, or that I’d become fixated on the history of potatoes. Helps hold your own at dinner parties – even if very few seem to find felt all that interesting…

  8. It’s not a minor thing for me; it turns me right off a book. As a result, I’m very careful in my books, and if I’m not, I’ve put a good editor on the project to catch what I did not.

  9. I just finished the latest hist/fic account of Josephine de Beauharnais and, despite its many laudatory comments, slammed it on Amazon for the very reason you mentioned here in your post–anachronisms. There wasn’t just two or three–there were over a hundred throughout the book–in dialogue, in scene descriptions, in supposedly historical settings. Who could take seriously any book where a seduction scene took place on black satin sheets sometime on 1795? Who would believe anything was correct when characters used phrases such as “wrap my mind around,” or “tropical themed party” or “I’m not having this conversation?”

    Loved your post–it came at just the right time!

  10. I thought this a terrific article. I cannot agree more. Writers do need to do their homework. The better ones do. As for M&B maybe not so much now but in the past there has been a big thing about ‘clean’ heroes and filthy anti- heroes. Also anachronisms galore! I read one set in medieval Ireland for research on these books and a pipe was passed around a hut! I ask you? The writer was American.

  11. Hi Anna, Amen to all of that – except perhaps the Diana Scott lewis ref – but then I don’t know the context, so maybe I’d chuckle too. I am currently frustrated because of wanting to have an accurate place name – where the Scots Gardes’ barracks where in 1597 in Paris – can’t find it – and it has held up my writing because I know that someone, somewhere will know. Almost at the point of re-writing opening to my chapter to avoid need for said place name as I can’t bear to be innaccurate… (How’s things going btw?) Margaret

    Turn of the Tide is now available Visit my webpage Find me on FB Historical Short Story just out in the HNS anthology Beggar at The Gate

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  12. Phew! I am now quite relieved I am relatively historically ignorant – I feel I would never enjoy a historical novel again, were there so many anachronisms out there waiting to ruin my read!
    I’m also glad you’ve made me aware of these pitfalls in my own writing. Great post!

  13. Fabulous blog! As a writer of historicals, I am always appalled to find the type of glaring anacronisms you mentioned. Along the same lines, it’s equally frustrating when a perfectly accurate word or expression from a particular period sounds all too modern to be used :-)

    1. I know, but if it’s right, it’s right. I just had the rather frustrating experience of having a reviewer scoff at one of my books, saying that no way would a woman in the 17th century run into Bonny Prince Charlie, as everyone knew that dude didn’t show until the 18th century. Hmm. I make NO mention of Prince Charlie – or even a Prince Charles – and not once in the book is there even as much as a glimpse of a royal. BUT, had she bothered to read the book – and the historical background, she would have known that Charles Stuart, son of the executed Charles I, was very much a shadow presence for the people living under the Commonwealth. Some wanted him back, praying daily for the Restoration of the monarchy (and someone up there seems to have listened to them) while others hoped he’d never set foot on an English shore again.

  14. Interesting about the kilometres. I do know what you mean, but what would she actually have said? And in Anglo Saxon or French? In fact, if she was talking to a Norman, she’d probably have been stuck with French so, using a modern idiom, more likely kilometres than miles . You’d get bonus points for the old French for distance, but then you’d have to explain it to your reader.

  15. Another thing to consider is attitudes your characters would have to social, gender and race . How would an 1740’s boy view a black sailor? (A bit of fear). Class mattered in those days, as did gender. Those attitudes that your character would hold would make a modern reader hiss and claim offence and isms , yet to put a character with modern attitudes in would be anachronistic.

  16. I agree with the sentiments in your post Anna, which I enjoyed, thank you. :-)
    But can I just say that sometimes it ain’t necessarily so.
    If you read Woolgar’s Food In Medieval England, (Oxford University Press) you will find a table citing the expenditure on eggs in the winter months – page 157 in the chapter ‘The Consumption and supply of Birds’ It’s a table taken from the household accounts of Dame Alice de Bryenne 1412-13 and shows purchase of eggs in all the winter months with a flurry in December/January, presumably for Christmas, so eggs were still being laid then. There’s some great info on the keeping of large flocks of chickens and geese. No birds or eggs were eaten during the season of Lent.
    Bathing – well there were bath houses and you’ll see frequent illustrations of the nobility having a lovely (and sometimes lascivious) time in decorated bath tubs. King John bathed once a fortnight and there was a chap who got paid to fill his bath. From laundry manuals it would seem that the nobility again, changed their linen undergarments every three days. Obviously they could afford to do so. Lesser mortals with not as much clothing or without laundry staff wouldn’t have that luxury, but we do know that everyone washed their hands and faces every day because it was a godly thing to do and there are many references in coroner’s reports of people falling into wells or pools when going to wash at break of day.
    They weren’t exactly up to current western levels of cleanliness, but washing was a daily fact of life.

    1. Dear Elizabeth, how nice of you to take the time to comment on my post. As to bathing, absolutely, rich people probably did. But they were the exception, don’t you think? And a bath once a fortnight is rather infrequent by our modern day standards.
      As to eggs, they actually store quite well, (depending on how adventurous you are, you can eat eggs up to 3 months after they’ve been laid) so buying eggs in December does not necessarily mean they were laid then. My great-aunt and uncle spent a considerable time in October/November preparing for the months in which their hens would not lay – at least not without artificial light – by storing some eggs in water glass, others in more normal baskets.

  17. Re the miles and kilometres thing. The Anglo Norman word for ‘mile’ was ‘mile.’ It comes from meaning one thousand paces. ‘par space d’une quarter d’une mile’ as one contemporary source says.
    I’ll shut up now. :-)

  18. I’m amazed that people still get the tomato/potato/chocolate/tobacco thing wrong, considering how roundly historical novel writers are criticized for it. I’m even more annoyed by writers who don’t update their Kindle versions after the mistake is pointed out, when this fix is available to publishers of ebooks. Once a book is printed, it’s done and can’t be corrected, but ebooks can be updated.

    I don’t write to authors any more pointing out mistakes after hearing authors talk about how annoying it is to them. I thought writers wanted their books to be as accurate as possible and avoid things that jerk the reader out of the story. I just stop reading their books mid-story and don’t buy any more books written by them or recommend them to friends. It was a disappointment to find out that some writers just don’t care.

  19. Pingback: On the dangers of French nannies | Scribblings

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