Meta Monday: Anachronisms—Nay or Yea?

MetaMondays5I finished reading C.J. Sansom’s Lamentation last week. It’s the sixth in a series of mysteries set in Tudor England, during the reign of Henry VIII. Lots of political intrigue and religious persecution. Good stuff —um, you know, in fiction.

Full disclosure: I loved it. I love the whole series. But when I checked out the comments posted on Goodreads, I saw some complaints about anachronistic words. Prime offenders seemed to be “lunch,” “sadistic” and “propaganda.” Which, okay, weren’t in use at that time.

Those complaints got me thinking. Overall, I lean toward Sansom on this. It’s hard to write a work of historical fiction in contemporary English without resorting to anachronisms. Especially if you’re going back as far as the Tudor period. Yes, Tudor English is “modern” English—but, for these books, we’re talking about a couple of generations before Shakespeare. It might be technically the same language we speak today, but it’s evolved a lot since then.

And what kind of bar do we set? I don’t think anyone expects Sansom to write in Tudor English, complete with obscure expressions, the familiar pronoun we’ve abandoned (thou was still in use), plus non-standard spellings and capitalizations.

So, yeah. Let’s assume that most readers aren’t saying, “Tudor English or bust.”

But once we eliminate trying to mimic the exact English of the time period—well, I’m still not sure where to set that bar. I think the most important thing is to be clear; don’t leave readers groping for your meaning. If Sansom wants to convey that Matthew Shardlake partook of a light meal around noon, the easiest word to use is “lunch,” even if that word didn’t exist at the time.

On the other hand, I’m glad Matthew never bursts out with dialogue like, “Okay, sure. Let’s get right on that, Jack.” There are limits.

But those limits vary from reader to reader. So I’m curious—what are yours? How do you feel about anachronisms in historical fiction? (Or fantasy fiction with an historical flavor.) What works for you and what makes you cringe?

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12 Responses to Meta Monday: Anachronisms—Nay or Yea?

  1. Love that series and I think you captured the essence of what’s acceptable.

    As I’m not well versed in that era, I’m not necessarily pulled out of the story by them. But I ended up looking up information to confirm what was being held as true for that period, something I do for everything I read and watch, including all the historic fiction series I read, from Wolf Hall to Cornwell’s series (and I also check up on these things for such series as The Vikings). Also did the same for ‘The Martian’. And yes, I find some matters that annoy me (can’t think of one, off hand), but if the power of the story carries me through it, I don’t toss the book down in contempt.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      I agree–I can forgive a lot for the sake of a good story and compelling characters. While I like to know something of the history too, it doesn’t have to be spot-on, depending on the nature of the story. (1776 is a fun and touching musical, despite some wild historical inaccuracies.) In this case, I think Sansom’s history is pretty solid, as is his take on the historical figures. So it’s even easier to forgive the anachronisms.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. M.L.S.Weech says:

    I try to avoid historical fiction for just that reason. I’m just not smart enough to compete with world building and a history lesson. I’m all for a deep world. Perception of War was an exercise in this. I have more interested (and therefore struggle) with making scifi/fantasy dialogue feel natural. Right now in my discovery draft, I’m just writing it. But I know I’ll have to go back and make the terms feel more real for the world I’m in. I think Robert Jordan does this very well. The epitaphs, slang and curse words feel right for that world. Dialogue is where it’s most challenging, but I think the prose should fit too. It’s all supposed to be in effort of making the world feel more realistic. The more you can do that, the better it will be.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      Word choice in fantasy and sci-fi is a fascinating subject. I’ve come at it more from the fantasy side, where the question arises as to how modern a feel you can give to the prose and dialogue. There are no hard and fast rules–as you say, your choices need to fit your world. (And, wow, this topic probably needs it’s own meta . . . .)

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I agree it’s a fine line when it comes to authenticity in historical novels and one which every writer and reader has to draw for themselves. Personally, when I read a historical novel I want to feel as though I’m being immersed in a different time and place rather than reading a story about modern people in fancy dress.
    A Tudor character using the word ‘Sadistic’ would certainly jar with me as it refers directly to a personage who is yet to be born for a couple of hundred years. The Tudors were also much less squeamish than we are about physical cruelty, so it would be an interesting question whether the concept would have the same meaning.
    I might not find ‘lunch’ so jarringly wrong, but thinking about it, in Tudor times people had very different eating patterns from those we have today in that their main meal tended to be in the late morning, presumably because mostly everyone was up and busy since dawn and went to bed fairly early in the evening. I might like to be reminded of that difference rather than allowed to imagine that everyone always did as we do.
    I think Hilary Mantel got things about right in the Wolf Hall series. You certainly aren’t bogged down with obscure expressions and details and the dialogue is fluid, but you are left in no doubt that you are encountering another world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      I get where you’re coming from about sadistic, and yet it doesn’t bother me. (Partly because I think it’s pretty accurate, especially when it comes to describing Henry, who went above and beyond the cruelty of his time period, as when he boiled someone to death.)

      That said, I respect Hilary Mantel and what she accomplished in Wolf Hall, as you know–and I really like certain insights she brings to her story. But I dislike her characterizations of a number of historical figures. Some of them feel shallow. With all its sexed-up liberties, I think The Tudors (the TV series, I mean) actually does a better job of bringing characters like Anne Boleyn and Thomas More to life. So that’s a case where something less strict about historical accuracy works better for me.

      I guess a lot depends on the story you want to tell. Wolf Hall is a tight, narrow story about Thomas Cromwell and how he sees the world and the people in it. The Tudors is a sexy, fun romp that has the luxury of giving us lots of different points of view, which might be why certain characters seemed (to me) better developed. C.J. Sansom’s mysteries are all from Matthew Shardlake’s point of view, a Reform leaning lawyer who once worked for Cromwell until he became disillusioned with the man. But Sansom is offering a mystery/thriller in an historical setting (which he obviously knows backward and forward), rather than straight forward history.

      So the choices of all three–Wolf Hall, The Tudors, and Lamentation–might be different, with differing audience expectations. And that’s a long winded way of saying that you’re right. As readers and writers, we all have to decide for ourselves where to draw the line.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. For me, the limits are more in the form of the vibe given by the author. Does it FEEL like you’re in that era? If the answer is yes, you move along with a nod and a job well done. If it is jarring and takes me out of the world then you didn’t get it right.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jenn Moss says:

      Absolutely, JR! Some shows and books can give me that vibe even when I know they’re not strictly accurate, historically speaking. (While something that is strictly accurate might not manage to transport me to that era.) I wish I knew what the exact magic formula is . . . . but I suppose it varies so much from person to person that there’s no such thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. rltsite says:

    This is such a difficult one! Have you ever tried reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth? He’s trying to use Old English to reflect the language of 1066. It’s a really good initiative and I respect that choice, but there’s only so much challenge a reader can take!

    Liked by 1 person

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