Anachronisms to watch out for, Part II

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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.

Anachronisms to watch out for, Part I

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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.

 

Correcting anachronisms

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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).

About 12,000 words cut

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Somehow I managed to cut about 12,000 words off of my Russian historical novel, which by some miracle I was able to translate out of MacWriteII and ClarisWorks into Word. I lost all of my formatting, page numbers, and title headers, and I had to cut out the garbage that shows up at the beginning and end of anything that’s translated through TextEdit, but the text itself was all still there. Some of the earliest chapters had weird floating text blocks that I had to copy and paste back into their appropriate places in the story, but once I got to Chapter 7, the first one I wrote during my second major phase of working on it, there really wasn’t much fixing to do with either indentation or content. The difference between the writing in the original sections of the first six chapters and everything from Chapter 7 onward is like night and day!

The total word count came to about 342,000 rounded, and I cut about 2,000 out through eliminating superfluous uses of words like “that” and “of,” and taking out some clunky phrasing, like “the residents who reside there.” Then I took out about 10,000 more words from the first six chapters (making sure to paste them into another document just for memory’s sake, even though I do have a printout of the original form of the first six chapters hanging around somewhere, with a bunch of handwritten notes and add-ons, probably from when I was 14-15).  Now the word count is around 330,000.

Everything I took out was 13-year-old garbage, junk that doesn’t advance the plot or character developments. I also had to make sure everything added up to the plot trajectory I finally hatched on when I was about 15-16, that Amy had secretly been in love with Ivan all along. Originally she preferred short, chubby Boris, and then later I had her falling in love with Ivan. But finally I thought it would be the best idea for her to have loved him all along, but something or someone always got in the way of their being together. So anything that wasn’t consistent with that was axed. Along with everything I took out, I did add in some new lines or passages, but only stuff that advanced the plot or character development. Certainly I didn’t add a total of 12,000 words right back in, or anywhere near 12,000 new words!

A lot of the stuff I took out reminded me of some of the problems with the Five Little Peppers series—too much cluttery chat or unnecessary scenes that seem to exist just for their own sake, not to advance a plot. The plot not only doesn’t suffer from their excisement, but actually gets better, since it’s not bogged down by junky dialogues and scenes. Some of the stuff I also had to change or excise because it just wasn’t historically or culturally accurate. I wasn’t yet a true Russophile at 13-14, and my historical fiction sensibilities were about the same as with the rough drafts of my earliest Atlantic City books—it’s like a story that just happens to be set in the past, but without any real sense of actual history behind it.

I’ve never seen the 1997 version of Titanic and have no desire ever to do so, for reasons including how so many girls went to see it a million times and how the needless deaths of almost 2,000 people were used as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story” set in 1912. But I think the original sections of the first six chapters had much the same problem. I was depicting people with the sensibilities of 1990s teenagers and setting them back in the late 1910s, no idea that there was no real sense of a teenage culture back then, in any country, or that the average 17- or 18-year-old was still considered like a full adult and ready for marriage back then, not merely in a phase between childhood and adulthood. The typical 17-year-old would not have been standing around chatting with her friends about modern teen concerns like what guys they like and who they think likes them, reading teen magazines (didn’t exist till Seventeen in 1944), or using vapid modern-day slang. And they would’ve gone to a ball at their gymnasium, not a high school dance.

There’s one really stupid, too-long flashback in the original version of Chapter 6 that takes way too long to get to the freaking point, how Amy found out Ivan’s dad was a raging alcoholic who used to abuse him horrifically. I cut that flashback by at least half, but I still think it might be too long and could be accomplished another way, not by having Ivan and Boris as schoolboys in a fight, Boris getting punished, Ivan yelling at him to obey his mother and saying he’s lucky she doesn’t do stuff like club him and push him down stairwells, Amy feeling a huge bump under Ivan’s hair and finding out where it came from, and finally Mr. Konev being arrested by the Okhrana (Tsarist police) for abuse of his son. I changed the offense to public drunkenness, since obviously I know now that child abuse (even spousal abuse) wasn’t considered a crime until a couple of decades ago.

My unofficial fiancé, who is himself Russian, was trying to convince me that it’s not culturally or historically believable for some of my characters, esp. the female protagonist, to go by the Western versions of their names, but it’s not like such a thing was unheard of. The point is that these characters are Westernized and upper-class, hence their support of the Tsar and being out of touch with how the majority of Russians live, act, think, and feel. Many Russian nobles, royalty, and upper-class folks DID go by the Western versions of their names prior to the modern era, and let’s not forget the hero of W&P is named Pierre, and his snooty, toffee-nosed bitch of a first wife is named Hélène! Are you going to argue that THAT wasn’t a believable name for a very Russian character in a certain milieu prior to the modern era, and that it’s so distracting you can’t get into the book of all books for that nitpicky reason? Besides, it’s not like they’re never called by their Russian names or nicknames, and it’s made clear they do go by them for legal and religious purposes.

I’m still not going to start querying my baby until I feel it’s as perfect as I can get it, but at least now it’s a lot tighter and more professional, not to mention less juvenile-looking, than it was when I first pulled it back off of the now-obsolete formats I wrote it on.