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Avoiding Anachronisms And Cliches In Historical Fiction, by Gary Worthington

Nothing can be more jarring when reading historical fiction than encountering a scene or event that’s obviously from a later time period or is just clearly inappropriate to the era involved.

Fortunately most serious writers are conscientious enough to do thorough research on the relevant time period. My own historical fiction to date has been set in India, and I’ve been meticulous about cultural and historical accuracy, sometimes almost to the point of obsession.

It’s fairly rare that I encounter something really significant in the work of other writers that’s clearly out of place, but it happens. The worse example I’ve seen personally was in a novel about the building of the Taj Mahal published a few years ago. The book had such major inaccuracies that I eventually had to stop reading it. The writer depicted an architect unrelated to the ruling families traveling on horseback around the Indian countryside alone with a Mughal princess, with a romance developing between the two. This was a major theme of the novel, and it absolutely could never have happened. In actuality, the Mughal rulers were Muslims and the women in their family were in purdah, strictly confined to separate living quarters and seen only by a very few men, who were close family members. If the women ever did travel outside the palaces, they were heavily guarded and were in curtained conveyances to keep them hidden from the eyes of others. Their seclusion was so strict that there are no known actual portraits of the women, only a relatively few imaginary depictions, unlike the male royalty whose likenesses were often shown in paintings.

Even the most minimal research by reading popular non-fiction books about the time period would have made these facts obvious, so there is no excuse for the extreme sloppiness in devising such a story and passing it off as historical fiction. There were other inaccuracies in the novel that could have easily been avoided with only slightly more research in readily available books about the building of the Taj.

If you’re tempted to take shortcuts in your research and think that no one will notice, you’re wrong. There are many readers who will spot even small inaccuracies and will call you on it. Now that it’s so easy to post reviews online, it’s even likely that your errors will be pointed out on Web sites and could well discourage others from reading the book.

In addition to avoiding factual inaccuracies, of course, there is the need to try to avoid word choices and stylistic choices that could be jarring to the reader and break the spell that you hope will be cast to draw the reader into your fictional world.

I think the easiest way to do this is to keep the language fairly “time-neutral” in terms of word choices. If a word or phrase sounds out of place in the narrative it should be avoided. Some actual examples from a story set in the 1700s that are clearly inappropriate: “The next item on the agenda…” and “What planet was your father living on?”

Obviously, never use modern slang. If you’re sure a slang word was actually in common use in the time period you’re writing about, it’s probably all right to incorporate it into your writing if it seems to fit the scene. Just be careful not to overuse it to the extent that the modern reader finds it jarring.

Writers naturally want to avoid cliches, but it’s amazing how easy it is for overused phrases to creep into a manuscript. I’ve found that in my own case it’s usually laziness that results in trite wording. Sometimes the scenes almost seem to be writing themselves, with the words flowing quickly onto the screen. This can be wonderful when it occurs, but it’s also a time when, rather than choosing language carefully, it’s easy to use phrases that we might speak without conscious thought in our typical every day conversations. A couple of examples from a story set in another culture the 1800s are, “like banging his head against a wall” and “the scene was something to behold.”

Another example in a tale set in the 1700s in an Asian country: “[The main character] had the good fortune…” That isn’t an extreme case, but it’s a little anachronistic sounding and stale wording. The same with the following in a 1700s story set in another culture: “And this was the second mortal blow.”

Sometimes even a word choice that’s factually “right” may not seem so to the reader. This is one of the many areas in which it’s crucial to have someone else read your work to give you unbiased feedback. I strongly recommend participating in a writing group that meets often, one in which the other members are knowledgeable about the basics of good writing and are mutually supportive in giving well-meant, helpful criticism on each other’s current work.


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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent advice and so true. When an advance copy of the first volume
    of my Guinevere Trilogy reached me, I was upset to see that each new chapter had a broken Gothic arch above it. Calling my agent, I tried to explain that architecturally that symbol was about 700 years later, which brought on a caustic “For Goodness sake, Persia…don’t you realize how rare that kind of attention to a first novel is? No one will notice, after all.” Except that two weeks later I got a letter from an Arthurian scholar who took her advanced copy to the annual International Arthurian Society meeting, and was now praising my writing but wondered how on earth I could be so sloppy with the arch motiff. So yes, someone will see and know, and you are bound to hear from them.

    October 26, 2013
  2. One of the things – perhaps the main thing – I love about the Sharpe books, by Bernard Cornwell, is the factual stuff woven into the stories. So effective is Cornwell’s technique, and so apparently meticulous his research, that, while researching my own novel, I trusted him enough to reread a Sharpe adventure set in the same place, just to get some atmosphere and the odd factual snippet. Imagine my surprise (and, yes, smugness!) when, I noticed that, in the first chapter, he repeatedly referred to fields of a certain crop that wasn’t grown in the region until many years after the Napoleonic period! I learnt two valuable lessons that day: First, don’t rely on second-hand research; second (as Persia found) some smug git WILL spot the mistake!

    October 26, 2013
  3. Eileen #

    As the great Persia Wooley says, people do notice. I recently finished a book taking place in 12th century Europe and the middle east and it contained references to mahogany, diamonds and velvet. I don’t believe that any of those products (with the possible exception of mahogany) were available. However, if the writing is good enough, I can overlook a few anachronisms.

    October 26, 2013

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