Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Good Read and a Writing Tip on Anachronisms

****First Place Winner Dragonfly Awards Competition, Historical Fiction Category****

Sisters of Freedom Series, Vol.1

A desperate flight from brutal oppression—and everything to lose if it fails...

Two women, one white, the other black, find themselves trapped in bondage on a South Carolina plantation in 1850's America. Their unique friendship gives each the strength to endure until circumstances threaten not only to rip them apart but to place their very lives in jeopardy. They undertake a harrowing flight with the aid of the Underground Railroad. Will slavery’s powerful tentacles hold them? Or will they find the freedom they crave...

Question from the E-mail: Good news, Arline. I published another Short Story.  Also a couple of people in my writers group have complained about anachronisms in my work.  Any ideas on how to avoid that?

Answer:  I't's hard. especially in Dialogue.  We tend to  let our characters talk in the language we hear every day, and not recall that people didn't always talk this way.  But using the wrong word can wake your reader from what John Gardiner calls "the dream" of the story. Especially if you write historical fiction.

As you know an anachronism is something out of time and place in a story. And they can sneak in without our even noticing. If your writers' group is picking up on them, listen  carefully and remember the Oxford English Dictionary will always tell you when a word came into use. That's useful, although their spelling may differ from American usage.

Not  long ago I received a ms. submission with a story set in Bible Times, where the people not only said "Okay," a lot (not actually a word until Civil War times or thereabout), but a "camel rushed across the desert sand as fast as a semi!" This author received our standard "We're too busy" return letter, and no, we didn't write to tell him there were no diesel trucks in the desert during the year Jesus was born. But essentially it was the anachronisms that proved to be his problem, because the gentleman knew how to write well, and he knew how to punctuate dialogue, a trip wire for many.

Believe me, I've seen some real "wake up calls" even in commercially published fiction.

Once I was reading a historical romance by a Very Well-Known Author, that was set in Elizabethan England. Obviously the author had written it first as a modern story, then set it back in time. There was a wonderful wedding scene. It had whole roasted pigs, jongleurs (what the hell is a jongleur, anyway?),  and troubadours singing bawdy songs of wedded bliss. 

Then a minor character praised the cheese served at the wedding "buffet," saying to the bride's father, "Where did you get this wonderful cheese?" 

To which the bride's father replied, "Oh, I'm glad you like it, okay? We had it flown in special."

"Okay" would have been bad enough, and in Elizabethan times a "buffet" was a cupboard. But "Flown In?" How?  

And shame, too, on the Big House Publisher's copy editor for missing that!


  1. Didn't anyone ever hear of carrier pigeons? They'd drop the cheese through the chimney.
    In the good old days, people wrote letters, books and everything else in very studied and stilted language. I note that in many historical books and films, they talk that way too. Sometimes they talk without ever using a contraction, in very literary language, but I doubt they really talked the way they wrote. We'll never really know. Anyway, it's better than using modern trash talk in dialog. Can you just imagine Lincoln saying, "Man, we gotta do somthin' about this f'n slave problem in the south. If Grant's sober, tell the sob I want to see him."

  2. Neat to you both. I can hear Lincoln Now. Asking Anna Ella if she wants a romp between the sheets before tea time.