The A-Word

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.

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.

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About Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT (Viking/Penguin May 2012), a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII, and TARNISH (June 2013), the story of a young Anne Boleyn. You can learn more about her www.katherinelongshore.com

14 thoughts on “The A-Word

  1. Carol Riggs says:

    Excellent article with plenty of food for thought! I don’t write historical, but my work-in-progress involves a character who grew up in the 11th century. It’s very difficult not to include phrasings that are more modern! as well as other anachronistic things. I’ve been trying to look up everything, but I’m still afraid I’ll miss something. I still like the idea of “choosing” to be anachronistic for certain things. 🙂

  2. hannahkarena says:

    This was a great post! I remember that anxiety really choking me when I wrote historical fiction, and this post reminded me intimately of all those worries. It sounds like you’ve found a really excellent balance between historical accuracy and your modern voice! As a reader, I’m willing to forgive/engage with a narrator with a modern voice as long as all the facts are historically accurate. I like learning things while reading historical fiction–being able to finish the book and bringing up a little factoid I gleaned about “life back then.” I’m not worried about the accuracy of contractions :]

    Also “anachronism” instantly makes me think of the YA book Past Perfect by Leila Sales. It’s the dirtiest word the warring historical reenactors use to insult each other!

  3. Excellent post, Katy. You really hit this one on the head.

  4. cahillwitch says:

    Great post, Katy! I think your books walk the line between fantastic research and authentic-yet-approachable voice really beautifully. 🙂

  5. What an excellent post! Especially when writing for young adults, I think voice is the area where a writer may feel the most pressure to be anachronistic (and perhaps the most freedom), and as you have pointed out, there can be very good reasons for it. The fact that it is difficult for a modern reader to get through, say, a Dickens novel is an example of why such flexibility may be considered necessary. However, I have far less sympathy for authors who take liberties with actual facts. Like changing birthdays so that someone is much younger or older than they actually were. Yeah, Mr. Shakespeare, I’m talking to you!

  6. Fiona Paul says:

    I think one thing readers forget is that if the author doesn’t know to look up a particular thing, then he/she won’t look it up. I definitely spent 2-3 times as long researching for the Eternal Rose books as I spent writing them. I was lucky enough to have a Paper Lantern Lit intern and a Renaissance expert also helping, so essentially 5 times as much time was spent on research as on writing, and we still got things wrong! Recently a reviewer for Belladonna took a certain joy in pointing out an anachronism, but since it was something that I never would have guessed didn’t exist back then, I didn’t verify it. And since it passed through 4 rounds of Paper Lantern Lit and Penguin editors + a Renaissance expert, I’m trying not to beat myself up about it. But I still kind of do. I commend you guys for choosing to write historical on a regular basis.

    • I still kind of beat myself up about it, too, Fiona. Isn’t it funny that people don’t point out all the things we got right? Because all that love and attention (and all that backup we have with readers and editors and copyeditors) means that we did get a LOT right. And that’s something to be proud of.

  7. Fiona Paul says:

    Also, contractions, FTW 😉 I took heat for those too, but I try to write books I can actually read and I personally would never make it through a super-formal contractionless book.

  8. catwinters says:

    Great post, Katy! I’m sorry to hear reviewers have been harsh on you for your voice, but I’m happy to hear you’ve personally come to embrace it.

    I’ve been dinged for not using enough 1918 slang (probably because I get a lot of fans of Libba Bray’s THE DIVINERS reading my book, and her novel is heavy on the slang). But whenever I researched personal letters from the WWI era and books written during the time period, the slang never jumped out at me, except for the word “smart” to describe things like looks and clothing, which my main character uses once or twice. It’s funny, if our writing is too stuffy and formal, we’ll be accused of being boring. If our voices sound too relatable, people will say the writing is too modern. It’s hard to please everyone in this genre, but thick skins and pure, utter enjoyment of writing historicals definitely help!

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