Anachronisms: Timing Is Everything
Fiction writers create worlds we can immerse ourselves in. They often create entire universes that are nothing like the known world, allowing us to imagine "what if?" as we read.
There’s Always a “But”
But fiction that's set in our own world—current-day, ancient history, or somewhere between—needs to make sense within the boundaries of that world. We would no sooner give Cleopatra a can of Coca-Cola than we would have Columbus crossing the seas on an ocean liner.
Some items are a little more subtle, though, and that's where it pays to do your research. A book I read years ago was set in medieval times, but the little children were amusing themselves by making parchment paper airplanes. I read another where the main character slammed her cell phone shut in anger—too bad it had already been mentioned that she had a smart phone, which was (even then) a far cry from the early flip phones . . . and with nothing to shut.
This type of slip-up is called an anachronism, "an error in chronology," according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary—something that's out of place because it's out of time.
At best, goof-ups like this will cause readers to leave scathing remarks in their reviews. It's frustrating to be pulled from the fictional world by typos, bad grammar, and the like. It's even more frustrating when the created world that's surrounding you is ripped away like cardboard walls on a theater set.
It Only Takes a Moment to Fact-Check
At worst, though, lack of research on the writer's part just might make the decision for an acquisitions editor as to whether a manuscript gets a deeper look or the slush pile. I recently read a post from someone who evaluates self-published books for an industry publication to determine whether they will be considered for review. He said one book looked promising and had a nice cover, so he read the preview on Amazon, hoping to give the book a good shot at a helpful industry review. However, in the first three pages of the book, there was a scene in which a character screamed for someone to get an epi-pen. The scene was set in 1979, and the evaluator took about 30 seconds of Googling to determine that epi-pens did not come to the market until 1987. He said the way the scene played out, there was no epi-pen available anyway (in the story world), so the scene could have functioned just fine without that line. The result? Trash can for that book. The evaluator mentioned what a waste it was for that writer to sabotage their own sales, due to sloppiness.
I once edited a manuscript set in the present day in which a centuries-old character used a particular apparatus (and had, since medieval days) that wasn't invented until the early 1800s. I made sure to mention it to the author, because these things are important to the readers. Just because a world is being created doesn't mean real-life things can just appear wherever the author thinks they're cool. Even fiction needs to make sense, and simple fact-checking can make or break whether people will continue to read to the end of your book. Granted, there will always be those readers who don’t notice a thing, but the people who can propel your book to the next level will always notice because it’s their job to notice.
The Buck Stops Where?
Ultimately, research for accuracy falls to the author. After all, it’s their book and their responsibility to think through such things as what type of armor was used in the Middle Ages, the shooting distance of various handguns, clothing material most common in Ancient Egypt, food and cooking trends in the 1960s, and much more.
The editor has a responsibility as well. Yes, the author is first and last in this, but a decent editor does a lot of fact-checking along the way through a manuscript. During a recent memoir edit, I did so much looking up of places and names that my style sheet ended up with hundreds of entries on a multi-page spreadsheet. It was well worth the time, though, because I was reminded of something I learned in a copyediting class last year: just because it’s not a typo doesn’t mean it’s accurate. The memoir featured the first and last names of hundreds of people in the entertainment industry, both in the US and South Africa. And the internet is only as accurate as those who enter its data. Even some of the bigger names were spelled differently from website to journal article to social media page. Thank goodness, the author was still in contact with many of the people whose name spellings I needed to verify, and he happily provided anything I couldn’t find on my own. The best thing about it was that he was genuinely appreciative and impressed that I’d gone to so much trouble to get it right.
Don’t Stress—Just Do the Research
Movies are famous for having anachronisms that moviegoers revel in catching: the kilts worn in Braveheart, for example, that weren’t in use in Scotland until well after William Wallace’s time. Sometimes they’re used for cinematic effect, and other times, they’re not intentional at all.
In the literary world, even famous writers screw up now and then. William Shakespeare had quite a few anachronisms in his plays, including referring to a clock in Julius Caesar. Clocks were certainly not around in 44 AD—not clocks as we know them, anyway, capable of striking the hour in the manner that Cassius mentions in Act 2, scene 1 (“The clock has stricken three”). He didn’t have editors in the modern sense, but I don’t think his audience noticed or cared about his oopses anyway, since most of them were unable to read and most likely didn’t notice the errors when spoken in a live performance.
That’s not to say that today’s writers can use Shakespeare as their own “Get Out of Jail Free” card. We’re still responsible for publishing content that won’t make people put the book down in frustration.
Sometimes, anachronisms are so easy to spot that we can’t imagine how a writer or editor missed them. The parchment paper airplanes I mentioned earlier, for example. A book set in the early days of black & white television that refers to the onscreen vibrant colors on an actress’s evening gown. A reference to a bit of technology in a setting before it was actually invented.
Not So Obvious
Other times, the out-of-place-ness (yes, I just made that up, but I like it so I’m keeping it) can be a lot more subtle. Words and phrases in our everyday usage have morphed as the language has adapted. Using the word “fantastic” in a current-day novel would most likely imply that something is excellent or superlative, e.g. “That was a fantastic vacation spot!” But if your novel is set in, perhaps, the 1700s, a character who used the word would imply that something was unbelievable, not real, based on fantasy: a “fantastic” device or invention, such as those in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Improper usage of a word is as bad as having a character say a word that isn’t in use until decades after the novel’s setting.
Readers are particularly harsh with authors who place weapons in the wrong time period. Some are eagle-eyed enough to catch that certain clothing is “off” by decades. I once read a book that was set in the current day, but the anachronisms were more season-specific, such as football practice at the high school only a month or two before graduation in the spring, or harvesting particular fruits out of season for the region.
At its best, it’s irritating enough to pull the reader out of a story. At worst, it’s lazy writing, and no writer wants to be known for carelessness. If you can’t be bothered to put the effort into your book, why should the reader keep reading?