Historical howlers

Salvete, readers!

I’ve written a few posts now which talked about the ideas of historical authenticity vs historical accuracy. Here’s the long and the short of it. Basically, I don’t think the concept of ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction is all it’s cracked up to be. What’s important is that the story feels real and remains sympathetic to historical sources. Anachronisms are a problem insofar as they undermine the reader’s ability to buy into your world. In fact, there are instances where careful and conscious employment of anachronism can result in strong story-telling.

Good gravy, it reads like a manifesto, doesn’t it?

That said, I do want to stress there are definitely instances in which anachronism can have a disastrous effect upon the sense of authenticity. I’m not talking about the decision to, say, invent a scenario in which two historical characters meet when they couldn’t have. I’m talking about silly mistakes that make it glaringly apparent that the author hasn’t thought about their world deeply or done a lot of research. For a lot of readers of historical fiction, that can be a deal-breaker. On a deep and fundamental level, historical howlers can undermine an author’s voice. The illusion that this story could be true falls away to reveal an author who is visiting the past like a tourist. When anachronism undermines the world-building, the entire story is going to fall down. Let’s have a look at a few examples.

For whatever reason, food is one of the most common places where howlers occur. I don’t know why descriptions of meals are so galling when the author gets it wrong—maybe it’s because sharing a meal together is such a universal human experience, and because it is a classic setting for character development. So when I read stories of, say, peasants in early medieval Ireland tucking into potatoes… well, suddenly the story doesn’t feel real any more. Potatoes, after all, come from the Americas and were hence unknown in Europe until after Columbus. But they quickly became common fare, so I guess they’ve become shorthand for peasantry. Gosh, I remember grinding my teeth when I saw peasants hurling tomatoes on Merlin for much the same reason.

Leaving the middle ages aside, howlers like this really grate when the author is writing about historical experiences within living memory. Kathryn Gossow (author of the contemporary fantasy Cassandra, which is really good and I recommend it highly), pointed out on one of my previous posts that it doesn’t make sense for a story set in 1950s Australia to feature a working class family sitting down to a hearty meal of mac and cheese. Really it should be meat and veg. A really clear sense of world history is your best friend when it comes to writing about food—not just the nitty gritty details of a particular time and place, but a clear sense of the ‘big picture’ of history around the globe.

I think howlers become a serious problem when they undermine characterisation. I’m going to use another example from a very popular historical fantasy series set in ancient Rome—I’d rather not say which one. It’s a first-person narrative. We are inside the protagonist’s head for the duration of the novel, and so I’d argue that it is extra important to keep the story feeling authentic. One of the subplots revolves around an infected wound. And that’s fine, infection was rife before the age of antibiotics. You could die of a broken bone in antiquity. The issue is that the protagonist describes it in terms of ‘infection.’ As in, he seems to be aware of bacteria. Now, the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the process of corruption. Aristotle devoted an entire treatise to the subject. And yet to have the character diagnose himself using the modern medical term has an effect like crunching gears on a car. It’s unpleasant to the ear and bad for the mechanics. The protagonist doesn’t sound Roman anymore—it’s become a generic fantasy with Romanesque costumes. Sometimes historical authenticity comes down to something as simple as word choice.

To avoid howlers, I always recommend digging into the primary sources for the period—newpapers, diaries, and especially novels from the time you’re depicting. Not just to mine for details, but to get a sense of the voice, the way people talked and thought.

And you know what? I’m also going to recommend a resource: Susanne Alleyne’s Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders. It’s an awesome little reference guide. The examples used in this book do tend to gravitate strongly toward a European and American context, which makes sense given the author’s historical interests. However, it also gives a really good, solid grounding in the methodology for avoiding historical howlers. And, you know, if you want to know a bit about medieval undies, it’s a great place to look.

And on that lovely note…


7 thoughts on “Historical howlers

  1. There was a supposed “Australian government document from” the 1950s mandating offensive restrictions on First Australians that was shared on Facebook and Twitter by some dim-bulb Australian leftists. The moment actual historians spotted it, they called it out as the forgery it was. Among many inaccuracies and anachronisms, the “1950s racist government document” used the term “indigenous Australians”. This term was not in use in the 1950s and did not come into wide use until the 1990s. In the 1950s, they were called Aboriginal Australians.

    • Hi Michelle,
      Apologies for the delay in my response. That is really frustrating– I’m glad I missed out on this social media trend. This is one of the reasons I worry about the receding funding for the discipline of history. People take advantage of public ignorance in just such a manner.

      • As plenty of scholars try to point out to dim-bulb modern people, the fact that in Little Women, “Father” is treated as some sort of God-like being, indicates that Louisa May Alcott wasn’t a “21st century feminist in the 19th century”. I also doubt she agreed with the true equality of the races either. Believing black people should not be slaves is not the same thing as believing black people should be equal.

        It happens in other supposed “proto-feminist” classics. Take The Secret Garden where the author takes a quick time out to justify male domestic violence against women.

  2. sometimes it’s the little howlers that really irritate me, Julian. Such as a story set in Melbourne in 1983 that has a character reading the “Herald Sun”. In 1983, there was still “The Sun” tabloid in the morning and “The Herald” broadsheet in the afternoon. There wouldn’t be a merged “Herald Sun” until 1990. Similarly, historical fiction set in Sydney between 1941 and 1990 that acts as if the afternoon tabloid “The Daily Mirror” doesn’t exist.

    Your thoughts on my example?

  3. Interestingly, it seems that it’s a myth that you can’t libel the dead – or rather, it is apparently legally possible to defame the dead if they have a reputation considered to be worth protecting (and, perhaps more pertinently, continue to generate income for their heirs). I was informally advised of this recently when having to make some rather delicate edits to an interview.

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