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…


47 replies
  1. laneswift
    laneswift says:

    I’m no history expert, so I think I’m closer to Rachel from Friends than I’d like to admit. However, I think even a lay-person can get a measure of authenticity if a writer does the research. It was clear when I read your books that you knew the era and the places in context. A couple of times I had to look up the words you used (which always thrills me, actually). One example springs to mind. I asked my husband if he knew what a ‘mandarin’ was. He didn’t either and was equally thrilled to be enlightened.

    I generally get the same feelings about science/biology. I love ‘near-future’ sci-fi and while one might argue anything goes, actually it really doesn’t. There are certain ‘laws’ if you like, that must be obeyed to make the fictitious phenomena/events plausible, because there’s only so much disbelief you can suspend before something goes into the realm of fairy-story.

    It’s always evident to me whether the author knows their subject or researched it well. Usually when important details are skimmed over or omitted you know the author didn’t do their research, more than the anachronistic bloopers that I might miss. (This is also often the case in crime fiction, when there are police or forensics.) However, it’s the small seamless historical details that bring a period piece to life, and you have to know your stuff to that well. Like you say, that’s the same for work of fiction.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I completely agree about the small details. There’s a lovely GK Chesterton quote that I hold by for historical fiction (or any, really): “Tell me that the great Mr. Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr. Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear.”

  2. MishaBurnett
    MishaBurnett says:

    In Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” there are a number of cases where I felt that the main character was thinking in a late 20th Century way.

    At one point, for example, he makes a long distance telephone call to Canada, and Carr has a long aside about the history of international phone calls to justify the action. However, for me the point wasn’t whether or not such a thing was possible, but whether or not it would be the character’s first impulse. I think that an educated middle-aged man in 1880’s New York would think first to send a telegram to reach a party in Canada.

    That’s just one example, as I recall the doctor was an early adopter of nearly every form of technology, blood typing and fingerprints and so on. It’s a subtle thing, but it gave me the feeling that the character wasn’t really a product of his time at all.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I didn’t love that either. I felt it wore its research very heavily, and the famous example of older thinking (the doctor photographing the victim’s eye to see if there was a picture of the murderer) seemed more of a standout than of a piece with the book. But it’s really hard to let go of those things like the tendency to reach for a phone, the little practical details.

      • MishaBurnett
        MishaBurnett says:

        The absolute worst that I can recall, though, was Dan Simmon’s “Summer Of Night”, which is set in 1960. About three-quarters of the way into the book it is suddenly revealed that one of the characters, a teen-aged boy, has designed and built an answering machine for his phone. I’m pretty sure that was an “oops” moment for the author–he’d written a scene that needed an answering machine and someone pointed out that they didn’t exist in 1960, so rather than rewrite the flow of the story he just said, “oh, the kid built it himself” and went on.

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        Ahahaha. That’s kind of hilarious. You can just imagine the panicky editorial conference. ‘I’d have to replot the whole thing! Surely we can bodge it…’

  3. Catana
    Catana says:

    Scary stuff. Certainly explains why I would never dare write historical fiction. I’m too lazy for all that research and I’d never be certain that I had everything right. But I’m glad there are writers (like you) with the courage to tackle it and convince me of the setting and characters’ authenticity.

  4. Colette
    Colette says:

    I have always loved reading historical novels, and yes it drives me crazy when there are obvious errors is dialogue or fact. One of my favorite authors is Roberta Gellis, she wrote wonderful medieval romances, while in easily understandable language, kept her charactors true in their thoughts and behaviors to the period the lived in.

      • kaetrin
        kaetrin says:

        Oh yes, I second the recommendation for Roberta Gellis, her Roselynde series (especially the first 4 books) are desert island keepers for me.

      • solprovider
        solprovider says:

        Roberta Gillis, the Mother of Historical Romance, started 1964 Knight’s Honor, culminating in 1979 Roselynde (through 2005 Desiree), almost 50 novels. Most historical romance authors cite her as their influence. A historical romance writer confessing to not knowing her name is like science fiction writers not knowing Asimov and Heinlein.

  5. mmjustus
    mmjustus says:

    I was a lit and history major in college (and a librarian), and I still think I was crazy to write a novel where the protagonist time travels from 1959 to 1877. You wouldn’t think 1959 was all that long ago (I don’t, at least — it was the year I was born), but it really is different enough to be another era. Language, clothing, technology… Anyway, it was an experience writing someone from one period I had to keep track of dealing with another period that I had to keep track of separately.

  6. livrancourt
    livrancourt says:

    True confession: I am easily swayed. If an author convinces me in the opening few pages that they have a handle on their period, any later errors would probably have to have flames and neon arrows for me to pick them up. That said – and having just made an attempt at writing a story set in 1955 – it’s not just the details that make or break a story. There are variations in sentence structure and tone that belong to the 21st century. I spent a lot of time editing out sentence fragments, toning down sarcasm, and modifying ironic one-liners that just didn’t fit with the time period. You’re probably saying, “well duh”, but it was a learning moment for me and I have to say I’ve read a couple things since where I thought, “hmm…”

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Oh yes, the opening is crucial. Get the reader buy-in early and you don’t have to keep on belabouring it.

      You’re so right about tone. I read a huge amount of Victorian and Edwardian pulp, which I hope helps me in my efforts to write it. 🙂

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        Project Gutenberg has a terrific range of E Phillips Oppenheim (Mysterious Mr Sabin is good) and Edgar Wallace (The Four Just Men). I adore John Buchan (a bit later but he’s old fashioned) and H Rider Haggard. Try King of the Khyber Rifles (WW1 adventure), The Beetle by Richard Marsh (weird weird horror), or The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (macabre). Don’t try to read Bulldog Drummond, it’s not worth the brain bleach for racism. The Fu Manchu stories are also amazingly racist to modern taste though less painful than they could be. I will be blogging more on pulp nearer to July when my own pulp influenced book comes out.

      • celia Jansson
        celia Jansson says:

        Thank you so much, I will try those. I didn’t really know where to start, or I didn’t came up with the right key words. I had downloaded some classics from Gutenberg recently, I like EM Forster, but I couldn’t read The Forsyte-Saga and the author won the nobel prize! Switched to the movie, but I will try again, all for research. The pulp books could be a bit more fun. I have the feeling, I must everything I can get before trying to publish my book.

  7. Lisa Henry
    Lisa Henry says:

    I love writing historicals, but I’m always terrified of making a hideous mistake! That Paul Kingsnorth books sounds interesting — going to check it out now. I loved Old and Middle English at uni, so this could be a fun way to dabble my toes in those waters again.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I’ve just started it and it’s great so far. Very weird and alien. Rather like the Riddley Walker reading experience (which, if you haven’t read, I recommend with all my heart).

  8. lillianfrancis
    lillianfrancis says:

    How I need that online etymology checker in my life. It would save so much time.

    I totally agree with you about the smoking issue. I’ve just finished a WW2 novel and, since I’ll never have my heroes as smokers, I felt I had to have them confirm they were both non smokers because it felt out of period for them to not have lit up at any point in the story.

    And sometimes it doesn’t matter how much research you do, your editor can still put the kybosh on things. One of my novels is contemporary with historical flashbacks (for want of a better word) and I did a lot of research to get the historical passages right. However my editor refused to let me use the word beaker for a drinking vessel because US readers would associate the word with a chemistry experiment!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Well quite. As an editor I will cut borderline things ruthlessly rather than risk a readers seeing it as wrong, even if I know it’s right. Potatoes in England 1650, for example: possible, but safer to replace with turnips. (Words to live by.)

  9. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    My 5-year-old: “Mommy, let’s play dress-up like in the olden days!”

    Me: “That sounds fun – which olden days?”

    Her: “Uhhh, the 1980s.”

    Me: *facepalm*

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Ahaha. Yes. My kids have a timeline that goes, basically ‘dinosaurs – baby Jesus – pirates – second world war – Mummy’. Their grandfather may go before or after the pirates, depending on mood.

  10. ali
    ali says:

    I hate the names thing! As a person who spends a lot of time walking in old London cemeteries (there is a sane reason believe me!) I have a pad and write down names I think useful and dates in passing, . Things like a name or title out of place are like a derailment of my possible train of enjoyment (lol!) because it goes through the WHOLE DAMN BOOK!!!
    I grew up with a historian who loved to teach and that has had a big effect on the way I approach research. I end up thinking about what people THINK is historically accurate – common beliefs about a period or subject – because lets face it history is so much about interpretation and facts may be contested…oh bloody hell why would anyone want to write historical fiction?!!

  11. Marianne McA
    Marianne McA says:

    I really enjoy Julia Quinn, but her early books at times lacked complete authenticity. On the first page of ‘How to Marry a Marquis’ (set in 1815) the heroine is worried about money. Her small brother offers her the ‘one pound, forty’ he has saved (I’m old enough to remember shillings) but she is still worried about how she will be able to afford to send him to Eton. ‘Every Hotchkiss male for four hundred years had attended Eton. They hadn’t all managed to graduate, but they’d all gone.’
    On the bright side, given your earlier suggestion, she is bang on about the vegetables. ‘…they were reduced to growing turnips – which they all detested – in a kitchen garden.’

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      That’s the kind of example that really bugs me. Not only does it smack of poor research (I have no idea when Eton was founded or whether they unlike any other English school had graduation ceremonies, but it certainly doesn’t ring true.) But also it would be better writing with less of the distracting detail, accurate or otherwise. Eg, ‘The men of her family had attended Eton since the College’s foundation; not all of them had taken much benefit from their education and a few had left in disgrace, but they had all attended.’

  12. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    Often when reading historicals something will make me go “was that word really around at the time?” Okay, I’m often wrong and it’s a perfectly good word, but not always. I’m no historian either, but I had watched Sharpe and his tight pants enough times to spot it in a historical book that they referred to the “Duke of Wellington” at a point when he’d only have been Lord Wellesley.

    One that drove me nuts and contributed to me abandoning it was a family in Regency England eating a Christmas dinner that included cranberries and was just generally a modern American Christmas feast and not an English Regency one.

    One thing I think lots of authors get wrong is just how important horses were before cars were around, and how much work horses are, how many people would have jobs dealing with horses. How much horse poo there was lying on the street (and that that’s what crossing sweepers were sweeping.) And they definitely over estimate what horses can do – having them galloping for hours and so on. I’ve seen this being referred to as treating horses like motorbikes.

    While I’m fine with seeing characters be abolitionists or believers in women’s suffrage etc (because after all change happened because of people who believed in those thing) I don’t like to see characters with a full set of the modern liberal values. But on the other hand I don’t want to see them all thinking the same way either, as if there are no political and philosophical differences, when of course there were big ones all through history. People didn’t all think the same in the past any more than they do now.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy is a great example of that – really well drawn historical attitudes that place her hero on the side of decency without straying from plausibility.

      Horses for me are like hats and beards. I know there should be a lot more of them around in my fiction, but I honestly don’t have the moral strength.

      • Becky Black
        Becky Black says:

        I suppose at least you’re writing Victorian settings where the railways at least exist. How people got anywhere at all before that is a miracle. And of course many didn’t go anywhere much beyond a few miles from their village before the Industrial Revolution came along.

        I read a Mills and Boon historical once where the heroine’s family owned a stagecoach firm, which was really interesting to read about, and to see just how often they had to change horses on those trips.

  13. Lola
    Lola says:

    I came here from your mention in FB chat today. In one Regency, and one Victorian romance a character replied to another saying, “That’s just semantics.” When I looked it up, while it was first used in the 1830’s in France, it probably would have taken a true bluestocking to have heard of it, and neither heroine was one. It didn’t come into common usage until well into the 20th century.

  14. Geoff Hart
    Geoff Hart says:

    Enjoyed your post (forwarded by my wife, who’s a fan). I’ve now set myself the challenge of crafting a short story packed to the rims with anachronisms — only they won’t be, in context. For example, to steamroll someone is anachronistic before the age of steam-powered machines. But what about “the knight took his steamed bun, filled with savory jerked pork, in his ironclad fist, and flattened — nay, steamrolled! — the drunk.”

    This seems difficult to turn into an actual story (you think?), so might someday become a blog post. And perhaps it will require a trigger warning for anachronophobes. *G*

  15. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Writing my own Victorian-era book (late Victorian era as in 1880s through her death) and the amount of things I have had to research could fill up its own book. Right now, it’s trying to track down when did a cook for a wealthy family go from being called Cook to being called Mrs. X. Trying to find the answer is like a needle in a haystack, though I think it *might* be middle-age, but don’t quote me on that.

  16. James Kabala
    James Kabala says:

    The roots of OK (thus spelled) actually go all the way back to the 1830s. Maybe the okay spelling and the use in British English came later. But yes, the use in a Shakespeare-related novel is very cringeworthy.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  3. […] For an interesting discussion of historical fiction, read Charles’ Anachronism and Accuracy: Getting it Right in Historical Novels. […]

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