Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Anachronisms. Whoops.

I once read a book set in the Middle Ages in England. I don’t remember the title of the book, but it was by a well-respected author. I was enjoying the book -- it had good characters, nice conflict, and I really wanted to see how it all worked out. And then it happened. The main character, possibly an apothecary, was doing up some poultice or potion or what-have-you and -- gasp -- she added witch hazel.

And it ruined the whole book for me. Because witch hazel is from America and, unless this thirteenth-century apothecary had some sort of as-yet-unrevealed powers of teleportation or possibly a portal to the future (I was open to it!) it sure as hell didn’t belong in that book.

And just like that the author’s whole world unravelled for me. One tiny detail, and it broke the spell. And I wish I could forgive it, but I can’t. And maybe some people wouldn’t have noticed, but I noticed, and it mattered.

Writing historical fiction means doing a lot of research. A lot. And not just in the obvious stuff like political leaders and dates and whether or not that building was actually there yet, but on the day-to-day minutiae of ordinary life. And, personally, I need to have the following covered:

What sort of underwear did they wear?
What did they use instead of toilet paper?
What did they eat?
What did their bedroom look like?
What sort of stuff would they own?
What did their shoes look like?
Birth control? Yay or nay?

And this doesn’t mean that you’re going to be subjected to a three page toilet visit in Ancient Rome including a whole paragraph on bum wiping (sponges, in case you’re interested, cleaned with vinegar and shared by all members of the household - ugh) but I need to know these things to feel confident I have a handle on that world. And yes, I’m sure that I’ve made mistakes as well. There might be some absolute clangers in mine and I guess that’s the problem -- just because I haven’t spotted them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

When you’re building your own world you can call all the shots -- flush toilets in an otherwise medieval  society, why not? Heaps of fantasy books have surprisingly advanced sewer systems and waste management -- but in historical fiction you’re at the mercy of historians, astute readers, and people who happened to read “Product of the USA” on a bottle of witch hazel the week before they picked up your book. 

Have you found any anachronisms lately? 

And for the historical fiction writers out there, what questions do you need answered before you can begin to feel comfortable in your world? 


  1. I’m not well read enough to spot anachronisms unless someone in the 1800s is listening to Steve Miller on an iPod instead of a Walkman.

    But I did once hear that instead of toilet paper, our early colonial folk would use corn cobs. Which brings me to wonder, how can we not know who invented toilet paper? There should be a huge monument somewhere, like the Statue of Liberty holding up a roll, streaming in the wind, where people can gather and sing songs and decorate the trees about it with rolls and rolls of toilet paper, each one printed with many blessings of thanks.

  2. Hi MC!
    Eugh, corn cobs! You're right - the man who invented toilet paper should be a saint! I wonder what people thought of it initially though. Were there old people sitting in rocking chairs on porches snorting: "Paper? You young whippersnappers! What's wrong with a good corn cob? Young people today are too soft!"
    Although, corn cobs would probably be more environmentally, that's just wrong!
    Also, do you think the 1800s Walkman was stem powered, or clockwork?

  3. Oh good god it's like me and watching "hackers" on tv shows. I'm sorry, nine out of ten you just cannot hack that fast period unless the other user is a complete moron. I also felt upset reading a fairly well known historical author mess up on a detail with clothing for a Tutor period piece.

    It just smacks of I didn't care or I didn't care enough to check. I know Gary Corby has had several historians for the period he's set his work in read the books to catch little hiccups. Not a half bad idea....

  4. I can't seem to find if Whitman's Walkman was steam-powered or not, but I can say that my own was definitely a sort of botched clockwork 'cause you could hear the gears grinding even louder than the music.

  5. You know, I think maybe this is why some writers decide to make up a setting and call their books "fantasy" despite the almost entire lack of anything fantastic in them at all. Honestly, sometimes I pick up a fantasy book and I feel like I've been tricked into reading historical fiction about a made up place. Drives me insane.

  6. Steph, I am completely technologically illiterate, so all of that is like water off a duck's back to me. It's interesting that you bring up The Tudors. Did you see the recent HBO (?) series. The whole thing was full of historical inaccuracies, but it didn't bother me as I enjoyed the tone so much. It's when something purports to be accurate that the errors are so much more glaring.

  7. MC, that would be off-putting. Although it would probably enhance the 1812 Overture.

  8. Sarah, that's a good point. I think it's a matter of expectations. I don't mind reading fantasy without the magic, or dragons, but I suppose if I was expecting those things I would feel ripped off as well. Also, I enjoy fantasy but I'm not hugely passionate about it. Historical novels with mistakes though...grr.

  9. Enjoyed your blog, Jen. To add my two cents worth. This is probably why I seldom read horse stories. The inaccuracies spoil the whole story for me. I'm sure car mechanics feel the same way etc,etc.

  10. Thanks, Dingi!

    I'm sure everyone with an area of expertise just hates to see it stuffed up. That's why you can never do enough research and why you should try to get an expert to read it first. Because it's so easy to turn people off, and so hard to win them back.

  11. I totally feel you, Jen. One misstep and I shut down. One of my latest conundrums was bathrooms in the mid-nineteenth century. It's a toughy because the beginnings of the modern toilet were starting to show up. But would hotels have them? Would private homes of the wealthy have them? I erred on the side of caution and decided that a hotel would have a "modern" bathroom whereas my character--being a plantation raised lady--probably would have grown up with something a bit more primitive.

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  13. I would've had no idea about witch hazel :) These things do worry me because my latest novel was historical, even though there was a bit of alt-history in it, most of it is as factual as I can make it. I spent a lot of time researching stuff like gas lamps, sewers and matches...

  14. Hi Caroline! Sounds like you made the right judgement call. I'm doing research at the moment for a story set in the 1930s in the Pacific. My mistake thinking the 1930s would be easy! It's surprisingly difficult to find out information on how advanced plumbing was on a Pacific island in that period. I mean, I know my copra plantation wouldn't have flush toilets, but what about on a visit to a regional town? I will have to be vague, because I can't be certain!

  15. Hi Girl Friday! I wouldn't have known about the witch hazel either, except I'd just read the label the week before. That's the difficulty, I guess. One tiny little detail that obviously slipped under the author's radar, and it broke the whole spell for me. Your novel sounds like a lot of research as well! I've researched matches in the past before, then got led down the path of how they were manufactured, and what painful deaths were suffered by the girls in the factories.

  16. It must be so hard to write historical fiction knowing that no matter how much you research and read your manuscript over or have other knowledgeable people read it other, you'll probably still miss at least one anachronism.

    What pulls me out of a story quicker than an anachronism is when an author puts in too much info about the time. It's like, "Okay, you don't have to prove to me that you know everything there is to know about shoes in feudal Japan. I promise to take your word for it if you just move on with the story!"

  17. I don't read too much historical fiction so I haven't run across many anachronisms. I did have a friend comment while we were watching Camelot that he was upset that one of the king's said "f*ck this" and indicated that he thought the term "f*ck" was a modern one. As far as I knew, the swear word was ancient so I had no issues with it. An English professor once told me that it evolved from a French version of the word that was used for centuries. I don't know though...anachronisms and your perception of's a tricky thing.

  18. Cacy, that's an excellent point about too much information. Sometimes it just gets in the way of the story.

  19. Michael, I agree! I think "f*ck" is a very old word - probably as old as the first time a Viking stepped off the boat in England and stubbed his toe. Whether or not it would be used as "f*ck off" is debatable. It wouldn't ruin a movie for me though.

    You're right about anachronisms though, it's quite subjective. I like books set in the Regency period, for example, but it drives me mad when they use too much slang of the time. It just makes it annoying to read, on a personal level. .So I guess I'm happy for authors to use modern language, as long as they keep the witch hazel out of the Middle Ages.

  20. The trickiest thing, I think, is language use-- I mean, you can have all the right ingredients but if you use a chronologically correct word that in the modern world has been hijacked for some completely different use, it is going to ring false in the mouth of your character. For example-- I was reading a book on the Trojan war, and one of the characters said "kudos are nice." and even though kudos is a Greek word, it took me RIGHT out of the novel immediately--and it would have even if the tone hadn't already been totally strange. All I could think about was granola bars!



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