The A-word. It’s not four letters. It’s not universally recognizable. But it’s a dirty and sometimes hurtful word that many of us try to avoid.
Anachronism, in my dictionary is defined this way: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists.
For example: People in the Tudor era drinking tea. Or eating fluffy white cake. (I cringed when I came across these in historical fiction by other writers). Or talking about a best friend (which my own character does in Gilt.) Or creating characters who believe they deserve free choice and want to fall in love (which I do in all of my novels, but unfortunately was probably not the case in most 16th Century women).
So if anachronism is a dirty word, you ask, why do you use them?
I think it depends on the writer.
Sometimes, it depends on the level of a writer’s research. A basic study of Tudor eating and drinking habits would reveal that they didn’t drink water (streams and rivers were both rubbish tips and open sewers, so can you blame them?) Closer historical research would tell you that tea wasn’t introduced to England until Catherine of Braganza (Charles II’s queen) brought it from Portugal in the late 17th Century. A systematic investigation would reveal the exact ingredients of hippocras (something pointed out to me by my thorough and thoroughly lovely copyeditor recently). A mistake or an assumption at any of these levels could lead to an anachronism.
Sometimes, it depends on the scrupulousness of the writer’s sensibilities. I’ve heard of historical novels where the author refuses to use contractions like don’t and can’t. And more famously, there are very few contractions used in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, because by the late 18th Century, they were considered almost vulgarly informal. To a modern reader, however, an entire novel written without contractions might seem overly ceremonious. Inflexible. So a writer might choose to be anachronistic to ease the reading flow.
Sometimes, it depends on the writer’s voice. This involves not only word choice but attitude, sentence structure, dialogue. I know that I use a modern writing voice. I hope that’s part of the appeal of my books to a modern reader. Sometimes I make mistakes (like best friend in Gilt). Sometimes, I choose to make them (when I use best friend again in Book 3). I’ve discovered that the anachronistic choice is sometimes the best one to make. For me, clarity and shared understanding sometimes tip the balance against precision.
This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt when I’m called out. An early professional reader damned me with the opinion that my writing voice was “coy and anachronistic”. I don’t know which word hurt most.
Because one of the joys of historical fiction is the research. Is getting it right. Getting the details into a novel that make that fictional world—and the past—come to life. To us, the past is very, very real. Being accused of anachronism is like discovering a shocking secret about a family member—a kick in the gut. How did I not know?
Since that early critique, however, I’ve come to embrace my writing voice (which is a good thing, because I can’t change it now). I do tons of research. I do my best not to make mistakes. I have amazing copyeditors who catch them when they slip through my fingers. And I’ve thickened my skin for when the inevitable comes. My voice may be anachronistic, but I’ve done my best to ensure that my content isn’t.