Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Anachronisms & Other Ways to Make Readers Snicker

A popular post from November 2009

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."


Jordan said...

Anachronisms drive me crazy. I was reading a historical book recently (which had a lot of anachronistic character attitudes—people living 150 years ago with 2000s attitudes) and it said something about all men zipping their pants the same way, in the 1840s.

That's pretty hard to believe, considering the first predecessor of the zipper was 5 years away, and the word "zipper" didn't enter the language until 1926.

(BTW, since I don't have the OED, I like to use Merriam-Webster's website to date words, though it only includes the date of the first usage, not later meanings. I'm compulsive about this when writing or editing historical.)

I love the point of expressing things in character voice! I'm so happy when I find the perfect way to do that in my writing.

MommyJ said...

Heh. You're funny. My favorite anachronism? In the movie Dances with Wolves, there is a scene where off in the distance, behind the Indian war chief, you can see tire tracks snacking their way up the hill side. Wonder how long it took for all the Indians to trade in their horses for a 4 wheel drive Jeep?

L.T. Elliot said...

Okay, I obviously can't drink things and finish your posts. Poor lappy.

Anachronisms. I love that word. It's so fun to say. Love of the word aside, they're no fun in reading. Really. I hate getting pulled out of a story. I've made some of those mistakes in my writing (and thank heavens for crit groups!) and now I keep a closer eye out for it. I don't write historical but I do establish time-periods, which is just as important, regardless of genre.

Heather B. Moore said...

All the more reason to make sure your alpha readers are astute readers and editors as well!

Stephanie Black said...

Great post, Annette! Thanks.

Anachronisms can be a problem in sci fi as well. I remember a sci fi novel set on another planet where there was the phrase "shoestring budget." Seemed so planet Earth.

Carolyn V. said...

I've read some writing that left me going, "Huh? Would they really say that?" Sadly, it does pull a reader out of the story.

Anonymous said...

There are some "amachronisms" that work. Or that conflict with other "rules" of the game.

For example, if you want your dialogue to have a ring of formality, you don't use contractions. If you want your character to be more personal, less stuffy, use contractions in their dailogue. The only problem is that contractions didn't exist A LONG TIME AGO, and if your writing in English but the novel is set in France, or Russia, or Israel, they don't have anything closely related to a contract.

What do you do? Use the contraction.

Of take your PIRATES example. The Argh, matey, pirates were a generally English brood that had their beginnings in the 14th century, but their lingo, and their culture flourished between the 15th and 17th centuries before it died out.

What if you're writing about piracy during the fourth century. Or during the Roman era. Or during the early English, Norwegian (Norsman) or Phoencian seamen? What if your novel is set at sea?

They may not have used precisely the same lingo, but having a character say AHOY, or describing the bilge or the barnacle, or the fin of a ship when only the precurssors of those later innovations were more widely used (and named) does a very good job of taking the reader into ebb and flow of the scene. You're essentially using the language as a bridge to bring a 21st century reader into the fourth century by using a 14th century word that sort of, may have, possibly had some counter part.

The anachronism game is a gray area. You may use it to justify your dislike for a particular author's work, or to make a point about your critique. But another critic may hail the very same anarchonims you discount on the grounds that it was used effectly to bridge the centuries and allow the reader a certain familiarity with the scen they may otherwise not have enjoyed.

The presence of anachronisms are not always due to the author's ignorance. Sometimes they're in there preciesly because of her brilliance.

Michele Holmes said...

Thanks, Annette. However, I must give credit where credit is due. It was James Dashner, during critique group, who pointed out to me that Jay sounded lame talking about angels. He was dead right, of course. I'd probably have wrong anachronisms all over the place if not for you guys who keep me on track! Thank heaven for brilliant editors like yourself.

Michele Holmes said...

One more credit . . . My eighteen-year-old wanna be rock star just reminded me that HE was the one who helped me come up with the Hendrix reference :) Resources all around me. I'm so blessed.

annie valentine said...

Good bit, Annette.

Heather Justesen said...

Ah, yes, these drive me crazy. I recently read a book where the writer said several things about the town that I knew didn't fit, so after that I kept checking to see if what the writer had said was true instead of letting my suspension of disbelief do its job.

Two things that drive me crazy, but are widely misunderstood by our society:

1) chickens do not lay their eggs by 8 a.m. Mine seldom lay ANYTHING before noon--and that's typical when I speak with other chicken owners. Ducks, on the other hand, almost always lay before 9 a.m.

2)Not all EMTs are paramedics, and small towns (under 20,000 people) definitely don't have them, and they didn't even EXIST until 1970.