in which I am anachronistic

As a writer of historical things, anachronisms terrify me.

I think they terrify anyone who creates stories in a historical context, especially since we now live in a time where anyone can google anything and call you on your mistakes really fast.

I recently watched a YouTube video compiling anachronistic phrases in Downton Abbey, and it freaked me out because none of the phrases they were pointing out sounded anachronistic to me. I didn’t realize I’m just saying was a phrase that people haven’t been using for forever. That was not even a phrase that was on my radar1 to be aware of. I wasn’t even aware that was really a phrase—I thought it was just a thing we said and had always said! Isn’t there a story about Paul Revere riding through Boston, crying “The British are coming! The British are coming…I’m just saying.” Or that famous line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…we’re just saying.” Those are things, right?

This is why anachronisms freak me out: because what if they are in my book and I don’t even realize it?

Correction: I know they are in my book, and I don’t even realize it.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

Ah, the ultimate Downton Abbey anachronism, the water bottle mantlepiece ornament.

My writing is primarily historical fantasy, so that second word gives me a little leeway on the anachronism front. There are things in my book that are completely and unapologetically anachronistic because hello steampunk. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t accidental anachronisms that I missed2. An example: fairly late in the revision process, I realized I made a passing reference to a city by a name that it was not referred to by until the 1900s. My book is set in 1818. So that didn’t work. I chastised myself for such stupidity and immediately corrected it, but honestly, how did I expect myself to know that3? When I was writing about said city, it never occurred to me that it once might have been called something other than what I know it as, so why on earth would I even feel the need to look it up?

So what do you do about these sneaky anachronisms that you don’t know are anachronisms, but some eagle-eyed reader inevitably will notice and point out in their Goodreads review?

And what do you do when something that is historically accurate seems wrong anyways? The phrase affectionately known today as the F bomb has been used in that crude manner since medieval times, but it would be strange and anachronistic to hear a character in the 1500s say “F**k off.” The utterly lovely writer Elizabeth Wein mentioned on her blog that someone got after her for using the phrase Blonde Bombshell in Code Name Verity, which maybe doesn’t seem accurate to WWII, but surprise—it was!

Or what about when being historically accurate compromises your writing? Because sometimes there are terms and phrases that are common to a period that would make no sense to modern readers, but it would be clunky and strange for a character to explain what it means. Imagine someone in the future is writing historical fiction set today says something like, “I pulled my iPhone, a small, square device with a screen used for sending textual communications, out of my pocket.” None of us think that way because we all know what an iPhone is and that would be weird. So do you use the anachronistic phrase for clarity’s sake, or go with a historical but inscrutable one?

And what about characters with modern attitudes? Sometimes it can be really hard to relate to historical characters simply because, as a result of living in a very different world than us, their worldviews just don’t seem to make sense. And what about dated cultural attitudes? Casual racism and homophobia that would have been the norm in a certain period and thus give a more accurate picture of a time period might totally turn a modern reader off from that character. Girls who wanted nothing more than to settle down and get married aren’t super fun to read about, but probably way more historically accurate than those who wanted to set sail with pirates and have adventures4.

So what do you do? Write modern characters in a historical setting, or hard to love ones that are true to their time?

I’m asking all these rhetorical questions because I honestly don’t have answers, by the way. Lest you start thinking I am clever and calm about this whole subject.

Anachronisms are one of the many tough things about writing historical fiction, and often they stress writers out to no end5. I get into fits of intense concern that saying a character’s buttons were brass instead of tin will keep someone from loving my book. But let’s be real—have you ever stopped liking a book you were loving simply because the character had the wrong sort of shoes or uttered an idiom not common until two years after the book is set?

If Downton Abbey is any indicator then the answer is no, because everyone is still watching it. I’m just saying.

  1. Speaking of being on my radar, I was recently going through a first draft of mine set in the Dutch Golden Age and found the phrase “Flying under the radar” somehow snuck in. Because they were doing a lot of flying, and definitely a lot of radar-ing in 1637.
  2. This entire post is a result of me reading a historical fiction book earlier today and in the middle of it, realizing that someone in my manuscript wears a style of hat that went out of fashion years before my book is set. Don’t worry, I’m just panicking.
  3. This sounds like I’m making excuses for myself….but really, how was I supposed to know that?! I slept through my AP European history class! …that is probably not something that is giving me a lot of credibility as a historical fiction writer.
  4. Why yes I have been reading a lot of the extraordinary and occasionally anachronistic Jacky Faber books, why do you ask?
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5 thoughts on “in which I am anachronistic

  1. This made me revoltingly glad I write contemporary.

  2. awdowner says:

    This is true for other genres as well. I once read a sci-fi where the author used similes the MC wouldn’t understand at all. I am constantly battling this in my own fantasy writing. “Would this character say fit as a fiddle? Where did that phrase come from? Do they even HAVE fiddles?”

    • MackenziLee says:

      Hadn’t even thought of that! Though I do remember hearing a fantasy writer one time say he had to take the word “back pedaled” out of his fantasy manuscript since there were no bikes, and hence no pedaling.

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