by Annette Lyon
Anachronisms are hysterical in fiction . . . and usually not in the way the author of a piece intended.
An anachronism is something stuck in a place where it doesn't fit in time. A really, really bad one would be giving a caveman a car. That's a bit too obvious, something no writer would ever accidentally do, but writers put in anachronisms all the time in more subtle ways.
While this is relevant to me as a historical writer, the overall concept is crucial for all writers to keep in mind, particularly in the revision stage, so read on.
For me, I constantly have to research bits and pieces to make sure that certain vocabulary, hair styles, household items, and so on were in use when I place them into a story.
Could Joe use a match to light a fire in this year? Can Sally eat a "cookie" in that year? Would David have access to envelopes in this location at this time? When did diamond rings become common symbols of engagements?
Those are the kinds of things writers pay attention to in their research. Where writers often lose focus is inadvertently throwing in common expressions that don't work for the time period of the book.
For example, a bad anachronism would be for a character from Shakespeare's time to say, "We're really off track."
The problem? "Off track" came from railroads. And yeah . . . railroads didn't exist in Shakespeare's time, so someone from that period wouldn't know what the phrase means.
So why is this important if you don't write historical fiction? Because this is one more way you can mess things up by imposing your mindset onto your characters.
The writer must always remember how the CHARACTER would really think and feel and relate to his or her world.
Luke Skywalker would never say he's "shell-shocked," even if what he's feeling would apply to our definition of that term. He'd use some other way to describe the feeling, because "shell-shocked" is World War II lingo.
When Lizzy from Pride and Prejudice discovers Darcy's involvement in saving her family's name, she'd never have said that he "stepped up to the plate." That's an American baseball term from the 20th century, for starters, one that didn't exist when the book was written. So granted, Jane Austen couldn't have used it, but someone trying to write a P&P sequel today could, and would really mess it up.
Another phrase I came across in a historical novel recently was, "We should give it a shot." I don't know for sure when that phrase came about, but the novel was set a long time ago, so the sentence jumped out as not belonging. It sounded way too modern for the context. I stopped believing the writer. These kinds of things just don't work.
Another warning: too much colloquial phrasing will date a contemporary book too; avoid anything too dated, even if it's dated as now.
In one book, the characters were from the early 1800s, and one referred to his mother as "pushing his buttons."
Um . . . which buttons would those be? The ones on his shirt? Because, yeah, well, hate to say this, but see, computers and other things with buttons that can be pushed . . . weren't invented when this guy supposedly lived.
What this writer needed was an idiom, term, or phrase from the early 1800s that would give the reader the same feel as "pushing my buttons" does today, but that came from the right period. They also needed something matching the character's personality. Instead, what we got was the writer's voice intruding on the story, the writer's point of view.
Sadly, it was hard to get immersed in the book when the author kept poking their nose into the story. I was painfully aware that they weren't fully into the characters' minds and hearts, let alone fully into the time period.
One of my favorite stories of this kind of revision (for the better!) is in Michele Paige Holmes's newest book, All the Stars in Heaven. She's used this example in a workshop herself when teaching how to get into characters' heads.
She originally wrote a scene where Jay, her hero, listens to the heroine, Sarah, sing a choir solo for the first time. He is blown away by her voice and says it's one of the most amazing things he's ever heard.
The rough draft had him compare her voice to an angel's. But then Michele realized that Jay wouldn't say that kind of thing. He's manly and tough. He wouldn't think in terms of angelic choirs. He loves and plays rock music.
Her final version says that Sarah's performance was the most amazing thing he'd ever heard with the possible exception of Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner."
I love that change. It's true-blue Jay, precisely how he'd think. It's okay that Michele's rough draft had the angelic bit. We all have rough drafts that aren't perfect (that's why they're called rough). And frankly, the original wasn't bad. But the final version was perfect: just how Jay would think and express himself. Michele stepped aside as the author and let him speak.
Be sure that when you do those later passes over your manuscript for revision that you read each scene with an eye out for when you're really in your characters' heads. Is this really how they'd see each situation? Or is it your lens that we're looking through?
Ask yourself: Is there anything that I, as the writer, am putting in that doesn't belong?
Would your character really say it this way, think this particular thought?
Are you expressing your opinion or your characters'? Your world view or theirs?
Worse, did you inadvertently throw in an anachronism?
Another gem I caught recently: "No, way."
In context, it sounded just like a Valley Girl from 1988. The problem? The story was set during the time of pirates.
I closed the book, tempted to walk around the house, flipping my hair, snapping gum, and going, "Like, totally argh, Matey."