It’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here we share some thoughts on anachronisms – those pesky out-of-time errors, and how to avoid them.
The word anachronism is derived from the Greek word anachronous which means against time. The term refers to a person, thing or idea that exists outside its time in history, especially one that happened or existed later than the period being written about. If readers stumble over details they know to be incorrect, it distracts from the story, breaking the contract between writer and reader. Avoiding this trap can be a minefield for historical authors. Fiction set in an imagined past is bound to be anachronistic to some extent, no matter how hard a writer tries to avoid it. The trick is not to let it show.
Shakespeare is famous for his anachronisms. He wrote of a clock in Julius Caesar, when clocks would not have existed. In the same play he talks of a man wearing a doublet, a garment unknown in ancient Rome, but fashionable in Shakespeare’s time. In Macbeth he talks about dollars, the wrong unit of currency. Then there is Cleopatra wanting to play billiards. Billiards was invented almost 2000 years after her reign, but was a game of luxury and masculine entertainment in Shakespeare’s era. The audience would have understood that it was an allusion to Cleopatra’s enormous political power. Such anachronisms were probably intentional, designed to help a contemporary audience engage more easily with a historical period.
As I read your list of Shakespeare’s anachronisms, Jenny, I wondered if it was also a way of letting the audience know that under the thin disguise of historical fiction, he was actually writing about modern times, modern conflicts, and commenting on modern political tensions without risking imprisonment by a touchy monarch.
The same cannot be said of the anachronisms in the manuscripts I’ve assessed over the years. In some cases, these errors are there because the writer hasn’t done their research. But more often, it’s a failure of imagination. When a writer sets a story in the early 1980s and describes a character texting messages on her phone, I’m quite sure the writer hasn’t exerted themselves enough to imagine themselves into the time of their story. They can’t imagine life without mobiles.
That’s an obvious instance. A subtler example is when the writer can’t imagine life without mobiles, but knows mobiles didn’t exist in the period her story is set, the 1960s, and so she hands her characters pagers. This particular writer told me with complete confidence, ‘Pagers existed then. They were used to summon doctors to emergency cases.’ That might be true. That’s not the issue, though. The issue is that the writer has been unable to imagine life without instant contact, and so has given all her characters, none of whom are doctors, pagers to fill a gap left by a lack of imagination.
I think this points to one of the nagging problems of writing historical fiction. The writer doesn’t simply have to do their research and get the fashions, architecture, language and political scene correct. The writer has to think themselves into the world they have created. People in the past thought differently, had a different outlook, a different worldview to people of today. Many behaviours remain recognisably the same. But the way people understand the world and how it operates, what they expect, is different. Those who are old enough, have seen how quickly worldviews can change. People who were adults in the 1980s know what it’s like to set out for a date or an appointment or to meet a friend on the understanding that something might happen to derail them. They can’t phone to say something’s come up – they missed their train, they witnessed a mugging and stopped to help the victim, they tripped and sprained their ankle. I postponed for years getting a mobile, hating the idea of being in constant reach of other people. Then one day I set out to meet a friend for lunch. I missed the train. I was only ten minutes late, but she was furious because I hadn’t been able to let her know I was delayed. My attitude was the old one – it didn’t matter if I was ten minutes late. Things happen. Her attitude was the new one – no matter what, you phone to let the other person know something’s come up. The next day, I bought a mobile. Now I’m bumping up against another new assumption about the world – that everyone’s got a smart phone. I still have my old steam-powered phone, which can’t receive emails. People send images to my phone and can’t understand why I don’t respond. But that’s another story!
It sounds like you’d fit perfectly into a historical novel, Sydney! As you say, an anachronistic worldview can be just as disconcerting to readers as obvious lapses like mobile phones that hadn’t been invented yet. This is particularly important when writing about fairly recent periods. I intend writing a book roughly covering the years 1929 – 1960. Some people will remember these times from first-hand experience. My mother once complained about a novel set in World War 2. ‘There weren’t nylon stockings during the war,’ she said. ‘Nylon was reserved for military use, like making parachutes.’
Anachronisms can crop up in a hundred ways – a change in the geography of a town, forgetting to check when introduced animals or plants arrived (for example, trout were only introduced to Tasmania in 1864) or simply using out of context word choices. Historical writers need to be constantly on the alert. People often say, ‘I really liked the story, but then such-and-such happened and I couldn’t get past it.’ It would be a shame to lose readers for want of a little research.