The Ugliest Word in Historical Fiction: Anachronism

Anachronism: The Scarlet Letter of Historical Fiction

A is for Anachronism

In the age of the Internet, it’s extremely easy for readers and movie viewers to hunt down holes in a historical writer’s research—and to publicly cry out “ANACHRONISM!!!” on blogs and in website comments sections. Even bestselling, award-winning historical novelists aren’t immune to the accusations, as exemplified by Elizabeth Wein’s Setting the Record Straight post about readers’ complaints of anachronisms (that aren’t even actual anachronisms) in her hit novel Code Name Verity. In his NPR article Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?, Geoff Nunberg explains that even the greats like Shakespeare and Dickens were guilty of anachronisms in their historical fiction, but their audiences were likely ignorant of the errors…or at least they couldn’t publicly complain about them with the ease of twenty-first-century Internet users.

Modern consumers of historical entertainment, however, are on high alert for inaccuracies.

As a reader and a writer of historical fiction, I can see both sides of the coin. I want to believe the novels I’m reading are as thoroughly researched and edited as possible. When a historical novelist is blatantly lazy or knowingly inserts a major, clunky anachronism for the sake of the story, that’s when I bristle. However, I still remind myself that I’m reading fiction. If the rest of the book is stellar, I’m willing to forgive some mistakes. There’s a sense of smugness and self-satisfaction when catching writers and filmmakers in the act of historical blunders, but it’s much more fun to actually sit back and enjoy the work.

dunce-capAs a writer, I find that accusations of sloppy research sting more than negative comments about my characters or plot. It’s the equivalent of working on a school essay until your eyes and fingers hurt, only to have your teacher give you a D and claim you didn’t put in enough effort.  The hard truth about being a historical novelist is that anachronisms could be lurking in every single sentence that you write. Words that seem too modern to be from the past are often, surprisingly, historically accurate, but the phrases that everyone—including you, your editor, your copy editor, your proofreader, and your historical fiction-writing critique partners—overlooked because they sounded time-period-appropriate? Those seemingly safe choices may very well be the dreaded A-word of historical fiction. The errors just sit there in the published copies, and we all have to live with them.

Even though some skeptics might believe otherwise, we writers, along with our publishers, truly do our utmost to keep historical inaccuracies at bay. There are no behind-the-scenes, “The Making of…” featurettes proving the hours we spend perusing historical slang dictionaries and hunting down rare historical documents. I could post pictures of what I look like after spending a full day researching a minute historical detail that will show up in a mere three sentences of my novel…but that wouldn’t be pretty. Trust me, anachronisms make us authors shudder far more than they make readers cringe, and we do whatever we can to strike them down with our editorial swords before our books reach your sharp and watchful eyes.

The great William Shakespeare—yep, guilty of anachronisms.

The great William Shakespeare—yep, guilty of anachronisms.

Anachronisms simply happen. That’s life. We writers could beat ourselves up about them and feel like big, old phonies, but the truth of the matter is we need to simply get over them. No matter how skillfully we may transport readers to the past, we’re still modern-day people writing about eras in which we never lived. Heck, even if we had lived in these time periods, our fuzzy memories would likely cause us to slip up and use an anachronistic phrase now and then.

Our jobs are to entertain readers and to pique their interests in time periods we find absolutely fascinating. I can sleep at night knowing I put in the time and the effort to make my debut novel as accurate and intriguing as possible. I’ve done my best to provide further options for learning about my book’s time period in my author’s note. And despite any criticism I may receive, I know that no one—no real person, anyway—has ever died from an anachronism.

____________________

Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, In the Shadow of Blackbirds, is a nominee for YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults and was named one of Booklist‘s Top Ten Horror Fiction for Youth. Her second novel, The Cure for Dreaming, is coming Fall 2014 from Amulet Books. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com.

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About Cat Winters

Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her second novel, THE CURE FOR DREAMING, is a 2015 Amelia Bloomer Project Nominee and a 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominee. Her upcoming books include THE UNINVITED (William Morrow/2015) and THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY (Amulet Books/2016), and she’s a contributor to the 2015 YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS. Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at http://www.catwinters.com.

10 thoughts on “The Ugliest Word in Historical Fiction: Anachronism

  1. My character was hungry. I spent a long time deciding whether she would describe the feeling as relating to her “gut,” her “belly,” or her “stomach”. Will a reader ever even notice? (Turns out, at that time, a belly referred more to pregnancy. Who knew?) I have a lot of problems with Shakespeare’s “history” but I cannot deny the dramatic power he wrought from changes like placing Hotspur and Prince Hal in contrast. As long as an author doesn’t swear the changes he or she makes are “true” — and a reader doesn’t try to learn history from fiction — we should all be good.

  2. yangszechoo says:

    I love this article – great points, especially for those of us struggling to write historical fiction! 😉

  3. catwinters says:

    mfantaliswrites: Ah, yes, those words that have changed meanings throughout history are probably the hardest anachronisms to catch. Dictionaries and historical slang dictionaries often don’t help much in those matters. I agree that readers shouldn’t base their knowledge of history on fiction, but I see historical novels as a jumping-off point to learning history. As a reader, I love digging up more info about the history I’ve discovered in an intriguing novel or movie, and I hope some of my own readers are wanting to do the same.

    yangsze: Thanks so much for your comment. Historical fiction is definitely one of the most challenging genres to tackle as a writer…even for us authors who add other elements, like ghosts and the afterlife, to our historical plots. 🙂

  4. Elizabeth says:

    really love this post. thank you!!

    • catwinters says:

      Thank you, Elizabeth! I’m thrilled you enjoyed the post, and I’m so sorry people have been unfairly bombing you with A-word attacks. CODE NAME VERITY deserves so much better than that.

  5. […] mind are the kinds of stupid and/or offensive mistakes like details about guns or crime scenes  or anachronisms – not to mention logical errors and plot holes and other goofs that can derail a […]

  6. stephswint says:

    I’m a reader, not a writer, but I agree. As long as a mistake doesn’t take away from the story I think most people are just overreacting. Thank you for a very intelligent post

  7. […] Winters, “The Ugliest Word in Historical Fiction: Anachronism,” Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks (blog), August 21, […]

  8. […] caught our eyes. I wrote an extensive piece on dealing with the challenges of anachronisms over on a website that I run with nine other authors of historical fiction. Admittedly, the research takes a great deal of time […]

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