Anachronisms to watch out for, Part I

There are so many things one needs to research carefully when writing historical, no matter the era. While I’m sure most serious writers don’t intentionally use anachronisms, it can happen to the best of us without even realising it. In my early days, I was eyeball-deep in anachronisms, and now it’s just embarrassing to read back on those very early drafts and shelved manuscripts. But hey, I was really young, read too much and understood too little, and was writing before the Internet made scholarly research easier. (I won’t even get into the confirmation-bias folks who think they know better than experts because they spent a few days Googling.)

Animal breeds

I’m a lifelong animal lover who used to want to be a vet. Someday I want enough land for a nice hobby farm and lots of pets. So I love including animal characters. But a lot of people don’t realise that some dog, cat, horse, rabbit, etc. breeds are relatively new, or were only in a certain area prior to the modern era. And sometimes a breed existed for a long time, like the Aegean cat, but wasn’t specifically bred as such till recently. Look up the year the breed was created, when it moved beyond its country of origin, when it became common or popular.

Moviestars and movies

First, it’s a total redundancy to specify something as a silent film when it’s clear it’s pre-1927. Doesn’t everyone know the majority of films were silent then? It would be more noteworthy to say something were a sound or partly-sound film from before 1927. It’s also more helpful to specify if something were silent or talking in the late 1920s or even early 1930s. Contrary to the popular myth, The Jazz Singer is maybe 75% silent, and didn’t immediately replace silents with talkies. Asia was also silent far longer than North America. I’ve seen Chinese silents from the early 1930s.

Also, just because a movie came out in a certain year doesn’t mean it was out the whole year. Look up the release dates, and how long films generally stayed in the theatre before the VCR made it possible to watch a movie over and over again even after it left theatres. And some movies that are now considered classics were duds when they originally came out, just like some now-popular classic moviestars didn’t begin with such acclaim, or suffered a decline in popularity before coming back. There was a period when Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford were written off as box office poison.

Books

Not all now-famous writers were universally famous, or didn’t get their full due in their lifetime. And if it’s a foreign writer, his or her books might not all have been translated into English yet. Some books that are widely-read today were censored or banned originally, including books that were worthy of imprisonment if discovered in your possession. It would be very daring for someone of, say, 1935 to be reading The Well of Loneliness.

Art and artists

Would your characters really know about a certain now-famous artist, or have gotten the chance to see his or her paintings? Just because someone was painting in a given era doesn’t mean s/he was famous or known beyond his or her country. Some now-belovèd artists, like Picasso, were kind of unpopular at first, contrary to one of the numerous anachronisms in the 1997 version of Titanic.

Music

If you really want to write certain bands into your story, set the book in the era they were popular. I’m so embarrassed at how I was trying to anachronistically force “the dawn of rock’n’roll” into books set in 1949 and 1950, and how clever I thought I was for slipping in blatant allusions to these bands WAY before they were popular or even together. And don’t just make mentions of the most popular acts or songs. Music in the 1940s, for example, was about a lot more than Frank Sinatra and ragtime.

 

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7 thoughts on “Anachronisms to watch out for, Part I

  1. Oh, I’m sure I’ve made this mistake before! (But thank goodness my life is easier not writing historic fiction, LOL… you really are an AWESOME breed of writers!) All the little details matter… spot on post.

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