Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility or accuracy of a historical.

Menstrual products

There’s one funny scene in my 7th Max’s House book that I now realise couldn’t have happened in 1943. Max’s hated youngest full brother Gene grabs a random pair of clothes in a beach locker room after their cousin Elaine put his real clothes down a sewer as revenge. Gene comes home and all the way out to a restaurant wearing pink shorts with a maxi pad stuck to them, and everyone, of course, laughs hysterically. Mr. Seward goes ballistic when he sees it, and refuses to believe Gene’s story. As punishment, he eats Gene’s dinner, rubbing salt in his wounds by making loud yummy noises.

Sanitary napkins didn’t have adhesive strips till the early Seventies. Prior to that, women had to wear belts, suspenders, and special underwear, or attach the pad with hooks or pins. Tampon use wasn’t that common, particularly among single girls. There also wouldn’t have been mainstream ads for any of these products, and they were often sold in unmarked brown paper right near the register, to save women the shame of being caught buying them in public.

Body modification

Tattoos and non-ear piercings didn’t start going mainstream in the West till the 1980s. Even ear-piercings was frowned upon as prostitute-like for a long time. Having more than one earring in an ear would’ve been considered shocking and scandalous for much of the 20th century. You couldn’t just walk into a tattoo parlour or find one in the yellow pages 50 years ago.

Sports

What sports were popular in your chosen era? Were the rules different? My father and brother still laugh when remembering how I thought I knew all these football rules based on reading the 1965 encyclopedia we had. It included positions and moves that no longer exist.

Language

Watch the slang your characters use. I’m embarrassed that I had my 1940s and even 1910s characters using 1990s American slang. Make it accurate to the time period, but don’t overdo it. And watch for modern terms and phrases, like “shut up” or “brainwashed.”

Transportation

How did people most commonly get around in your chosen era? Trains were very common for long-distance transportation until airfare became more affordable for ordinary people. A lot of people didn’t have cars even after they supplanted horses. Most people crossed the ocean in ships, not planes, until probably the 1970s. And make sure you know how fast a given mode of transport could travel in that era. Crossing the ocean in a ship took a lot longer in the 18th century than in the 1920s, for example.

Cost of living

Look at some old catalogues and other resources to see how cheap it was (by today’s standards) to buy food, a car, a house, clothes, a wedding dress, shoes, appliances, and a night out on the town.

Sexual double standard

Sadly, it’s still very much alive and well, but before women’s lib, it was even more oppressive. Even a lot of women bought into it. It was so horrifying to read the slut-shaming in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and its sequel in all but name, Joy in the Morning. A minor character in Tree, Joanna, was treated like an absolute pariah because she dared go out in public with and show love to her baby girl born out of wedlock. Her boyfriend wanted to marry her, but his mother and sisters insisted she had cheated and he couldn’t be the father, since “if she let you, she let others.” In Joy, Carl’s hideous mother and sister also say this when they find out Annie’s pregnant, albeit some months after marriage. But of course, it’s okay for a man to sleep around and have premarital sex, since he’s a man.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part III

This is the third installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the plausibility and accuracy of a historical.

Education

Different methods and information were emphasised at different times in history. Creative learning wouldn’t have been popular in the conformist pre-1960s era. Students were expected to blindly memorise instead of having more interactive, personally meaningful lessons. Until very recently, young students were taught and expected to use cursive. I learnt cursive in second grade, in 1987-88, and always felt cursive to be more grown-up than print. Now I’ve come to find out that a lot of my peers, and younger people, don’t even know cursive, and that many teachers no longer teach it.

An education was a luxury for the rich until mandatory, free public education became popular in the late 19th/early 20th century. Until then, mostly well-off white boys could go to school for longer than a few years. Many schools also had separate doors for boys and girls.

Food

As I’ve written about before, food shouldn’t be a minor detail. You can’t have people in the 1920s, outside of a big city, having pizza, just as you can’t have people during the Civil War having gelato and hummus.

Clothes

What was in fashion? How long or short were hemlines? What were hats like? Did people wear gloves? Was it common to make one’s own clothes? Do your characters live in a big city, where they could get pre-made clothes at a department store?

Just because an item of clothing was trendy or existed doesn’t mean everyone would’ve worn it. Also, don’t overdo it with the fashionable clothes. It seems like a parody if, say, 1920s characters wear nothing but raccoon coats, rolled-down stockings with clocks and powdered knees, open galoshes, glovelettes, cloche hats, flapper dresses, and greased hair. People wore ordinary clothes too. Fur was also considered an important part of a woman’s wardrobe until a few decades ago. I generally have women who are as repulsed as I am by stoles, muffs, and coats with actual animal bodies and parts left on, but who happily, matter-of-factly accept fur coats as a way to stay warm and look beautiful.

Religion

A Pre-Vatican II Catholic is very different from a typical modern Catholic. In those days, the priest didn’t face the congregation, the Mass was in Latin, Communion had to be taken with the eyes closed and right from the priest’s hand to one’s mouth, nuns wore full habits, and even lower-income parents did whatever they could to send their kids to private school for a proper Catholic education.

For much of the 20th century, Conservative Judaism was almost identical to Orthodoxy, minus the mixed seating and some differences in the prayerbook. Reform Judaism was way more liberal, with some shuls holding services on Sunday and serving treyf (non-kosher food) at their banquets. Orthodoxy was also more progressive, in its own way. At midcentury, many proper Orthodox shuls didn’t have a mechitza (divider between men and women). Sadly, much of Orthodoxy drifted further and further to the right after the Shoah.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part II

This is the second installment of a five-part series on potential anachronisms that can ruin the believability or accuracy of a historical.

Technology

Just because a certain appliance or technology existed in a certain year doesn’t mean it was common or affordable. For example, more people than you might assume had televisions in the mechanical scanning-disc era of circa 1928-33. That doesn’t mean everyone had one, or that a poor farmer or factory worker knew about them or could afford them. Know what kinds of technology existed in that era, like phones, refrigerators, kitchen appliances, typewriters, record players, cameras, home movies, etc.

Cars

I freaking love antique cars, esp. Brass Age. I love the chance to include make, model, and colour when describing cars in my books. Make sure you know when a car was released, became popular, and was available outside of its country of origin. And try to mix it up a little with make and model. Not all Americans drove Model Ts!

Birth control

I was embarrassingly naïve in my early days as a serious writer, and really believed there were some form of birth control pills in the 1940s, as well as home pregnancy tests, sponges, and easy, open access to condoms. Women in this era had to use diaphragms (which was very hard even for married women in many areas), vinegar-soaked household sponges cut to shape, condoms the male partner got from a pharmacist, or some kind of risky folk remedy like lemon juice. This was also the era when doctors seriously advised women to douche with Lysol for birth control and general health.

Birth

Until the early 20th century, generally only destitute or very wealthy women birthed in hospitals. Until male obstetricians’ sadly successful smear campaign against midwives in the early 20th century, women had always been brought to bed by their nearest and dearest, with a midwife in attendance. Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common for women, esp. with money, to invite physicians in, but birth still took place at home. Mortality rates for both mothers and babies actually drastically went up after birth began moving to hospital, while midwives had much better outcomes. Don’t even get me started on the barbaric twilight sleep.

For a woman birthing with a midwife or physician at home, she was in control of the situation, and got to decide who was there and which interventions to accept. Even if many women feared birth would be their death, they knew what to expect from having witnessed so many other births. It wasn’t hidden away in shame and secrecy in a hospital, where women were alone among strangers.

The higher death rates in the old days were mostly due to poor sanitation, doctors and midwives who didn’t wash their hands and who reused equipment, and the unnatural conditions upper-class women lived in. Poor and working-class women had better labours, since they actually had a lot of fresh air and sunlight, and weren’t expected to hole themselves in like invalids and not do any physical activity during pregnancy. Upper-class women were also the ones forced into corsets, which deformed bones and organs.

It would’ve been extraordinarily rare for a woman to have anyone other than medical personnel in the delivery room until the 1970s, and even then permission was usually only granted for the husband, if he produced proof they’d taken a Bradley or Lamaze class. Any woman during the twilight sleep era who either avoided heavy drugs and/or had friends and family in attendance would’ve been the wife of a doctor, wealthy, or birthing with an extremely progressive doctor.

Women also laboured at home longer, usually only arriving in active labour instead of at the first mild contraction. The vast majority of women went into labour naturally instead of scheduling inductions at the 12-week visit, the C-section rate was extremely low (twins and triplets, most breech presentations, and suspected “large” babies weren’t considered medical emergencies), and hospital stays were two weeks long early in the 20th century and still around 4-5 days at mid-century.

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

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.

 

Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Historical fiction, Rewriting, Russian novel, Writing

Correcting anachronisms

Good historical fiction is much more than just some costume play, striking the correct balance between a story that just happens to be set in the past and a story where almost everything is a reference to fads and events of the era. Right now I’m fixing up the first book in my series focusing on the blended family of cousins Max and Elaine, with an estimated word count of around 60,000 and set from June to September of 1941. I wrote the first handwritten draft from December 1991 to April of ’93, transcribed and lengthened it by about a third during 1999, and am now fixing it up again after its conversion out of MacWriteII. This is one of my favorite things I ever wrote (esp. since I got to write it twice, since I added so much more new stuff when I transcribed it), starring two of my favoritest characters ever (Max and Elaine are the double protagonists of the series), and possibly my favorite of my four Atlantic City series. But boy, there are some anachronisms I’ve been working on fixing the third time I’ve worked on this manuscript.

While part of the humor in these books is supposed to be that it’s a spoof of modern-day life, set back in the 1940s to show how ridiculous things like hypersexualized preteens and kids who grow up way before their childhood is over are, I still have to work within what was historically accurate and believable. The fact that they talk, look, act, and think like they’re at least five or six years older is always explained as the influence of the radical, secret society of sorts in their town, a life philosophy and series of teachings that were handed down from generation to generation, by women, for over a thousand years.

Anachronistic slang is one thing I’ve got to root out. It’s a mistake to assume that just because certain slang words are used in your own generation, that means they’ve been in use for awhile. No one in the 1940s would have said something sucked or bit, used words like “barfola,” “lameo,” “rad,” “hip,” or “nerdy,” and apparently the words “hunk” and “hunky” hadn’t crept into the lexicon by then either. I’m going to have to either find another slang word for a hot guy (and I’m pretty sure “sheik” was considered a bit outmoded by 1941), or just say “handsome” or “sexy.” At least it’s safe to still use a word like “cool,” since that had become a slang word by the early 1940s. Maybe it wasn’t used as often as it is today, but it’s not out of the realm of believability for it to be used.

I also had them seeing or talking about movies that wouldn’t have come out yet by that point in the year. How could they have seen Dumbo when it didn’t come out till that fall? I changed the movie to Abbott and Costello’s In the Navy, which was released in late May of ’41, and gave the alternate choice (which only Marx Brothers-worshipping Max wanted) of The Big Store. It’s always important to check release dates, not just go by release years!

I had to change the name of one of the younger girls at the wedding banquet from Ashley to Eileen. I naïvely assumed that the same names I knew were in use decades ago. I had no idea that Ashley was a male name only way back when. A girl born about 1933 or 1934 would NEVER have been named Ashley! And of course, I’ll have to replace all references to cassette tapes to records. At least it’s not out of the realm of historical reality or financial possibility for them to have home films, personal filming machines, and televisions, since most of these characters are millionaires. Television also wasn’t as rare pre-1946 as many people believe. Of course not everyone had a TV in the late Twenties, early Thirties, or late Thirties and early Forties, but it wasn’t like only one in a million people had a TV either.

Basically, my earliest historical fiction manuscripts read like costume plays, like they just happen to be set in the past. There’s no sense of social conventions, language, cultural things, etc. You can’t just have a series of books set in the 1940s and only have references to WWII and the Jewish character worrying about her friends in Europe! You need to have an overall sense it’s set in the past, not just defined by the one major historical event of the era. You also can’t have people acting like modern people, because some of that behavior might have been considered suspect, crazy, or unthinkable in the past. For example, Amber St. Clare and Scarlett O’Hara are empowered, feminist women, but only in the way they could have been in their respective historical eras. They did not have the sensibilities of women in the 1920s, the 1960s, or the 1990s. We like these characters because they’re not like the typical women of their respective eras, but they’re still enlightened and empowered in historically believable ways.

And you can’t show a woman in the past doing something considered radical or weird without at least having people talk about it, like a woman who chooses to breastfeed in the 1920s or a woman who keeps her last name in the 1950s. Like, as much as twilight sleep makes my hair stand on end, I have to recognize that it was considered enlightened and the only way to go by the majority of women for about 50 years. This was the era of “doctor knows best,” when people had a lot of respect for authority instead of doing their own research like today. I wanted to vomit in my mouth when I was reading Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Rings Around Us and she seriously called her OB “that precious, Godlike man” in the chapter talking about her first birth in 1938. She was a real-life person who was indeed a woman ahead of her time, but not so much ahead of her time she thought to protest against things like twilight sleep (which I’m assuming she got both times), automatically changing her name, and not even considering breastfeeding.

In my old Russian folder, mostly filled with notes from 1993, there’s a yellowed sheet with my rather juvenile descriptions of my main characters. Apparently, in my mind, Elizabeth developed a relationship with Aleksey (then called Alexis) because she’s a bit backwards in her thinking and thinks she’ll be protected if she’s got a man to take care of her. Um, how is that backwards thinking in 1917? That was considered normal! Amy would’ve been the one considered abnormal, since when the book starts, she’s never been the type of girl to dream of her wedding day, and she’s never wanted any kids. She sees herself as equal to guys, and feels she doesn’t need a man to be taken care of. All of my main female characters are feminists in the way they would’ve been for that era, as a matter of fact, even snobby, superficial airhead Anastasiya by the end (even if her own proto-feminism is motivated by vanity instead of core principles).

But, in other news, I love how the first book in the series about Max and Elaine works just great as a standalone. You don’t need to have read the four books in the prior series to understand the story or what the characters are about. It’s written as though the reader is meeting them for the very first time, and it’s its own story, not anything continued from the final book (apart from the fact that Elaine had just moved to town and Mr. and Mrs. Seward had just gotten a divorce near the end of that book).