I recently read a book where relatively early on there’s a glaring anachronism – in this case the main characters are using Playstation, but this is like two decades before Playstation existed. I should probably get over this irrelevant slip and concentrate on the unfolding story, but unfortunately such mistakes dilute the credibility of the characters – at least for me. Having discovered one anachronism, “Eagle Eye Belfrage” is now on the lookout for more, and sure enough, if you find one, you’ll find several. And each and every one of them puts yet another nail into the coffin of this particular read until I at last put the book down and start on another.
Of course, there are degrees to these anachronisms. If the main character in a novel set in Roman Britain happens to break off a snowdrop, I can live with it. If said character starts enthusing about tulips, I’ll be less forgiving. If an Irish family sits down to dine on potatoes and milk in the early sixteenth century, it will make me skeptical. If an English family in the same time frame passes tomatoes round the table, I’ll close the book and never open it again. British sailors tipsy on rum in the sixteenth century didn’t exist – but they were probably tipsy on something, and the ambitious author will take the time to do his/her research and tell us what this might be. (Gin, I’d hazard)
One of my favourite anachronisms is that of a Saxon princess (she has just narrowly escaped being raped by a foraging Norman knight) who stands up, tells this lout of a man she needs no help to get back home, thank you very much (feisty, I like feisty) as it is “only a six kilometre walk”. What? There went that book down the drain – pity, given the rather attractive Norman lout…
People who write historical novels with the purpose of offering entertainment don’t have to be history professors – but they should show their readers the respect of getting the overall facts more or less straight. The odd error is okay – we are all fallible human beings (well, except some of us – at least according to themselves) – just as the odd spelling mistake/typo is easily forgiven if the story as such has you enthralled. But recurring anachronisms, highlighting to the discerning reader just how little the writer knows about the period, sort of disqualifies the book from using the epithet “Historical”. There are other genres such writers can explore and contribute to.
One of the more difficult aspects of writing historical fiction is to step away from your modern concepts – such as equality despite gender. Personally, I do not subscribe to the notion that the women of long ago were timid, submissive types, constantly under the thumb of their husband. You just have to read about formidable (not always likeable, mind you) women such as Bess of Hardwyck, or St Birgitta of Sweden, or Margaret Douglas, paramour of James V, to realise those ladies of auld lang syne were tough. Like boots, and then some. But. Major but. Legally, their husbands could chastise them, beat them, lock them up, force themselves on them. Smart men didn’t do that – but they could. And some of them did… Of course, any woman alive knew this – and was well aware she’d have to tread carefully around the issue of male supremacy.
Likewise, if you’re going to write a book with religious content – however peripheral – make sure you know the basic differences between f.ex Catholics and Protestants. A Protestant would rarely say “Holy Mother of God”, as Protestants have serious doubts as to just how holy the Virgin Mary was. Presbyterians don’t have priests – or bishops (Sorry, apparently not everyone knows that). And just so you know, the Westminster Confession, despite its name, was not drafted either by or for the king – rather the reverse in fact, preceding the unfortunate Charles I death by a mere handful of years. In general, religion in the 16th and 17th century is very confusing – I guess to some extent it always is – what with Calvinists and Huguenots, Lollards, Puritans and other Protestants, Catholics and Recusants, the odd ambitious Jesuit and to add further spice to the pot, the Quakers. To write a book set in these times without touching upon the religious turmoil would be difficult, to say the least.
Then there’s the clothes. NO, there were no zippers! Not until the first decade in the 20th century. I know, I know; this little detail plays havoc with your seduction scene, staring tall, dark and handsome and his deft fingers, oh so gently undoing the zipper that decorates blonde, curvy and winsome’s 17th century dress. But hey. one can have a lot of fun with laces, or with hooks, a long, long row of miniature hooks to be undone one by one.
“She raised her skirts and pulled down her drawers before crouching over the chamber pot.” Full points for the chamber pot, minus for the drawers as this is a sixteenth century lady – well, unless she is Portuguese, or Spanish. These ladies had the benefit of inheriting certain Moorish traditions when it came to dress, and so had pants long before anyone else did. (And if you want to read a book that does an absolutely excellent job of bringing Moorish Spain to life as concerns dress and food and interiors, I’d recommend the Sultana books by Lisa Yarde. That lady has definitely done her research!)
And then there’s the matter of kilts. Boy, am I tired of anachronistic kilts! Yes, I know we must all blame “Braveheart” for it, and yes, the idea of a rugged highland lord in a kilt does bring out interesting patches of heat all over, but the kilt DID NOT exist before the 16th century. Full stop.
Likewise, it is interesting to note how many of the long gone heroes and heroines – especially in Historical Romance – are fastidious about keeping clean. Ahem. Let me let you in on a secret: most people did not shower (there were none) or bathe more than a couple of times a year. Now, I do believe the human race as a whole enjoys feeling clean, which would argue for that handsome and kilted highland lord now and then braving the frigid waters of the nearby loch to properly clean himself off – but not on a daily basis, unless it was bloody hot and he liked goofing around in the shallows.
Another little irritant is food. The rosy maid is sent off to collect eggs in January. Didn’t happen, as the hens did not lay from about November to March – this is why eggs at Easter is such a big thing. Neither was there milk all year round – cows dry up after numerous months, and one must wait for the next calf before there will be any new milk. Poor labourers in the 17th century did not drink tea as a restorative, neither did they consume potatoes, as this crop was regarded with suspicion. No, the poorer among us lived off porridge. Like all the time … Now that doesn’t make for much of a read does it?
“The wavering light of the tallow candle threw shadows over the table. XX (Insert adequate male name) leaned back, regarding her as she went about her duties in the dark and smoky kitchen. She’d changed her apron, he noted, and there was a newly scrubbed look to her face that made him smile. She peeked at him, he caught her eyes. YY (insert female name of your choice) ducked her head, the hands holding the bowl trembled. At last; here she came. XX shifted on his seat. A sight for weary eyes she was, a strand of dark hair peeping from below her cap, her rosebud mouth quivering with a contained smile. “Porridge,” she said, setting the bowl down. And just like that, XX felt the magic of the moment dissipate. Porridge in a dark and cold kitchen – just like yesterday and the day before.Likely just like tomorrow and the day after. He picked up his spoon and focused on his food.”
Some authors use anachronisms on purpose – and many of them do it with excellent effect, mainly because they’ve already convinced the reader they know their period anyway. One such example is Diane Scott Lewis, who in her book the Defiant Lady of Pencavel has one character saying something about having her knickers in a twist, upon which the defiant lady herself says “we don’t have knickers yet”. That makes me chuckle, settle back in my comfy chair and continue reading.
Ultimately, any book is about the story – and the protagonists, who must leap off the pages and grow into your heart. It’s difficult to develop that relationship with the intended hero/heroine, if the first thing you notice are the things that are wrong – the armwrist watch on a 15th century lady , the casual reference to a sitting room in the 14th century, the miraculous appearance of a fork – long before it was invented. Or maybe that’s just me.