Anachronism and Accuracy: getting it right in historical novels

I’ve been editing, reading and writing a lot of historical fiction recently, and I have anachronism and accuracy on my mind.

Now, of course any historical fiction will be anachronistic by its nature, even if the author does her best to think herself into the worldview and language. There are people who can do an incredible job of that. Paul Kingsnorth has just written a novel that ventriloquises 11th-century English in a mostly comprehensible way.

With my scramasax i saws up until his throta is cut and blaec blud then cums roarin out lic gathran wind.

For 273 pages. Gosh.

For most of us, telling the story comes before authenticity, certainly at this level. I have no idea how many years of knowledge and hard work Kingsnorth or Adam Thorpe or Hilary Mantel have to call on to do their impersonations of the past, but most of us don’t have the time and space for that kind of ultra deep research, nor is that what most readers necessarily want, certainly not in genre fiction. I will be reading the Kingsnorth book, as it looks amazing, but I don’t have any regrets that Alex Beecroft’s recent and lovely Anglo-Saxon romance isn’t written this way.

Still, there are a number of pitfalls for those of us without history degrees that you can at least look out for.

The most obvious is use of anachronistic language. I’m not talking about using ‘Okay’ in a Regency romance here, I assume you’re better than that. (Though people do it. My earliest spotted use of Okay was in a flung-across-the-room thriller starring William Shakespeare.

‘Shakespeare, I need Macbeth finished tomorrow!’

‘Okay, Burbage!’

As it happens, ‘Okay’ is recorded in English as early as 1908. However, nobody will believe this, so you are well advised not to use it till the Second World War.)

However, it’s easy to be caught out even if you’re careful. As far as I’m aware, nobody has yet set up an online etymology checker so you can plug in the year 1888, run your MS through the OED and have it flag words dating from later. (I wish someone would. Get on that, IT people.) So you have to be very word aware. Read in the period, look hard at what you type.

Slang, mindless jargon and dead metaphors (phrases whose origin has been forgotten) are particularly dangerous because they date language yet they’re so easy to use without thinking. A recent BBC drama set in 1950 referred to people working ‘twenty-four/seven’. In 1950? And your Victorian hero cannot ‘kick start’ the heroine’s moribund lace-making business because that’s a phrase that comes from motorbikes. You might as well have him reboot it.

I’m currently editing a book set in 1650 in which the narrative describes a character as silhouetted against the sky. But ‘silhouette’ is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name. It comes by a meandering path (‘meander’: a winding Greek river; you’re fine with this unless you’re writing prehistoric, in which case ug ug grunt) from Étienne de Silhouette, a French finance minister of the 1760s, whose austerity measures made his name synonymous with cheap stuff, like cut-out black paper portraits instead of oil paintings – the eponymous silhouettes.

So you obviously can’t have a character in a medieval novel talk about a silhouette. Does it mean the narrative can’t use it in description? I say no, you shouldn’t, because it risks jolting the historically minded reader out of period, just as I wouldn’t allow a Regency character to carry out a boycott or a Victorian to act as a quisling. But I’m well aware those are examples of words I know. There will be a lot I miss.

Then there are habits of mind and action where it’s equally easy to be thoughtlessly modern. Let’s say we’re in a medieval setting and the gang of vagabond rogues need to search a house in a hurry. One says, ‘Meet back here in five minutes.’ How do they know? They don’t have watches. Church clocks don’t chime minutes. Can people who’ve never had easy access to timepieces even think in terms of five minutes?

Or swimming. Prior to the late Victorian age, if your character can swim, you need to know how they learned and why, because most people simply couldn’t. The brilliant Patrick O’Brien Napoleonic War novels show that the hero Jack Aubrey can swim, but stress how unusual that was. Most sailors, if shoved off the edge of a boat, went under. You can’t simply assume your heroes can get over the river that way.

There are other modern habits that are hard to break. My bugbear is smoking, or the lack of it. I don’t smoke, I have very few friends who smoke, I don’t have it in my house and it’s banned in public places. Smoking is not part of my life. Therefore I am perfectly capable of writing an entire book set in Victorian or Edwardian times where nobody smokes. That’s absurdly unlikely.

I probably won’t ever do a smoking hero for three reasons:

  • Lots of readers see it as deeply unattractive
  • The inevitable copy edits. (‘The hero has lit a cigarette three times in this scene without smoking or stubbing one out. Please review.’ ‘He fell in the water, how has he got a cigarette lit?’ ‘Hero hasn’t smoked in five chapters, isn’t he craving yet?’ ARGH.)
  • I don’t want my hero to die of lung cancer twenty years after the book ends. (This is my real reason, embarrassingly.)

But this shouldn’t stop villains or minor characters or someone from lighting up. My historical books should be wreathed in smoke. Yet it never crosses my 21st-century smoke-free mind to put it in.

Ahistorical attitudes are a blog (or a book) in themselves and one I’ll be doing later on. I merely note here that if your Regency hero believes in racial equality and the rights of man, hangs out with his servants, treats women as equals and doesn’t care what people think of him, you need to explain how and why he got all these attitudes because they definitely didn’t come as standard. My Victorian hero of The Magpie Lord does at least three of those things because his very specific backstory – gay, exiled to China as a young man, living on the streets with his servant/henchman, loathes his family – has caused him to see the world differently. Yours might have a completely different reason. As long as there is one.

Oh, and one more thing: names and titles. There is no excuse for sloppiness here. The names will probably be in the first sentence of the blurb; if you get them wrong it’s hard to believe anything else will go well. Take ten minutes to look at period documents and see what people are called. For British titles, look up how to use them here. It is insultingly lazy and embarrassingly cloth-eared to refer to Sir Richard Burton as ‘Sir Burton’; it’s really not hard to find examples of how that works. (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart are all over the internet, and never as Sir McKellen and Sir Stewart.) The next time I see this, the book is going back to the author wrapped around a rock.

Some authors may well feel that their fast-paced paranormal romantic thriller doesn’t need to be burdened by a ton of research just because it’s also Victorian. Fine, yes, the world is full of readers like Rachel from Friends:

What period is it from?

It’s from yore. Like, the days of yore, you know?

Yes, those readers won’t notice anything odd in Duke Bobby Smith of Manchester, or alternatively will call your research sloppy because your Victorian novel has trains and everyone knows trains are modern. Life is hard.

But if you’re making any attempt to write historical fiction, rather than contemporary fiction in silly hats, you need to write (and edit) for the people who do know and care, to the best of your abilities. Which makes historical fiction much like any other kind, really.

How much do you care about accuracy? What’s your favourite historical blooper? Who gives good history? Tell me your thoughts…