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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Anachronisms and Why I Embrace Them

You don't often hear an historical fiction writer say that. We all strive to be as true to our time period as we can. But in some cases, I just don't think it's necessary, or even desirable to do so.

I suppose first I should state my firm belief that I don't care who you are, or what type of historical fiction you are writing, as a contemporary author it is impossible for your fiction not to be anachronistic. Period. We are all creatures of our time. We are influenced by the time in which we live and that will, no matter how hard we work to prevent it, show in our writing. Even Shakespeare's works are anachronistic if we look at plays like Julius Caesar as historical fiction.

Let's start with language. Now, I'm not saying that we should throw modern colloquialisms into our writing willy nilly. I don't want to read a Regency character saying something like, "dude, not cool." You've lost me at that point. But I also don't want to read a modern historical romance with dialog like this: "Do not you want to know who has taken it?" Yes, Jane Austen can get away with it, because when she wrote it the language WAS contemporary. Her characters voices are easy and believable. But for almost all modern historical fiction authors dialog like that comes off sounding stilted and forced. And that will pull me out of a story no matter how historically accurate it is. Because it's awkward for me to read that. It doesn't sound natural to me, and I know it's not natural to the author.

I recently read a novella that took place during the Victorian era. I wanted to like it. The dialog and language were period appropriate, and even the character's inner monologue was appropriate in voice and subject. But, even knowing that, I simply could not like it. The language was stilted and forced and put a wall between me, the reader, and the characters that I could not get over. I was kept at a distance, an observer of the story rather than being pulled in and experiencing the emotions of the characters. As this was a romance, that was a major barrier. And I knew that had the author not adhered so closely to period appropriate language and thought I would have enjoyed the story much more. If I felt these characters were struggling with issues that I could identify with, I would have been drawn into their story. As anachronistic as that may have been, it would have made a better story for me, a contemporary reader.

And that's the real point here. We may be writing historical fiction, but we want to write a story that appeals to a contemporary reader. As an author of historical erotic romance, for me this often results in anachronistic story lines. I've had readers point out that what occurs in some of my books--erotic menage stories with a happily ever after--would never have actually happened during the Regency period. Well, no, probably not. But that's why I write historical fiction and not historical non-fiction (which I have written for academic purposes.) I'm sure there are papers written and published somewhere about the fact that most historical romance heroines are anachronistic. They are far too self-aware, independent, and self-actualizing to really represent women of their time period, allowing for exceptions to every rule. But that's what modern readers want to see in romances, heroines they can relate to, who are struggling with the same choices they face.

This may not be true of all historical fiction writers, but for me the setting of my books is similar to a set on a stage, it's the background for the actual story and not the main element of the book. The book is about the characters and what happens to them, their conflict and motivation and resolution. What they are wearing, the language they use and the food they eat lend depth to those experiences, but rarely do they influence them.

That being said, I dislike inaccurate historical facts as much as the next person. I have a rather flexible willing suspension of disbelief when it comes to a character's motivation, goals, actions, even language to a certain extent, but don't get your facts wrong. Because that will make me put a book down and not pick it up again. There are so many resources for writers on the web--just a few clicks away, you don't even have to go to the library anymore--that to get your facts wrong is inexcusable. And facts include dress, food, language and history.

So, what's your opinion on anachronisms in historical fiction? Are you flexible when it comes anachronistic story lines and characters? What about language? Does genre make a difference?


Becky Moore said...

Yes, I prefer being flexible on anachronisms in historical romance. The first romances I read were Julie Garwood, and though they're far from erotic, I still fimd them to be quite titillating. Maybe it's because I was more innocent when I first read them, but maybe it's because they're just good adventurous love stories. I also like your spicier telling of history, and more often than not prefer new purchases to be a little more, er, earthy. Probably because I'm older and not so innocent. ;) It is off-putting to read antiquated turns of phrases by contemporary authors, and I tend to skip over new historical romances when shopping. i'm picky ... I want lush descriptions and settings from far away lands, interesting characters who, when I read them, want to feel like I'm listening in the first person as if I was in the same time, perhaps in the same room. The antiquated lexicons seem silly to me, like my 12 year old trying to speak like a Harvard grad student. That langusge is more unbelievable to me than a happy ending.

Samantha Kane said...

Exactly. What you said. LOL I started out with the historical romances of the 80's, too. I know a lot of people love to have heavy description of location, etc., in their historical romances and that's great, there are authors out there who do a fantastic job at that and still have wonderful characters. Eloisa James comes to mind. Eloisa James also has delightful, witty dialog, which is probably my favorite thing about her writing.

Portia Da Costa said...

I'm fairly forgiving of anachronism as long as it's not something so glaring it pulls me right out of the story.

As for language, I like a happy medium, I think. A voice that gives a flavor of the time period, and sounds true to it in spirit without being too stilted and mannered.

Samantha Kane said...

I'm a true believer in being true to the spirit of the time period, too, Portia. And I think if a writer really loves the period they are writing, that it will shine through, no matter what.

Pam Mingle said...

This is a very interesting post. Modern historical fiction (literary) uses anachronisms freely. In a way, it's playing with your readers and is part of re-visioning or re-imagining history, if you will.

I agree with Portia that a happy medium works best. Use enough period language to give your readers a sense of the time, but don't overdo it. Something that I find really annoying is writers who don't use any contractions. That's not the way people spoke then--in the Regency--and certainly not now. They're in Austen, and even in Shakespeare's time, all but a few contractions were used.

Samantha Kane said...

Pam~ There are writers who seem so true to the time period that what they write becomes, in readers minds, true historical fact when it is not (Georgette Heyer for instance). I don't really think most historical fiction authors set out to re-envision history.

Yes, the contraction issue. LOL Nothing is more aggravating to me than a ms. without any contractions. So stilted! It's fun to turn on the voice reading program on the computer and listen to it.

JenB said...

My employers are all going to fire me for saying this, but here goes...

I wouldn't know an anachronism if it bit me on the butt. I never paid attention in history class, so an anachronism has to be really disgustingly obvious for me to catch on.

If a Victorian English heroine peppers her speech with phrases like "Bitch, please!" and calls her parents Mom and Dad, then sure, I know better. But natural dialogue that feels "old timey"? Sure, I'll buy it.

And don't even ask me about period dress or titles of nobility.

(Seriously. Unemployed in 5, 4, 3...)

Teresa Thomas Bohannon said...

I would have to agree with most of the comments here. I love Gutenberg.org and have read dozens of books from there--but I've probably started reading hundreds of them. The fact is, that the majority of books that are historically accurate because they were written back then--so to speak--are prosy, stilted and darned tedious reading. The balance between historical accuracy, and pleasing a modern audience is difficult for a writer. But, for the most part, I'd rather read a modern historical novel--anachronisms and all--most any day.

When I originally wrote my Regency romance novel, A Very Merry Chase, that was the philosophy that guided me. When I finally got around to editing it for publication, I also edited with an eye towards our busy modern life style and an audience that generally demands a faster paced plot and less prosy ramblings.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a reader, I have to say that I dislike anachronistic language and attitudes and story lines in historical romances. Not only do I get annoyed when a Regency heroine thinks and acts like a contemporary heroine, but I get annoyed when no distinction is made between the attitudes of a Regency couple and those of a Victorian couple.

If an author wants to write about contemporary attitudes and behavior, why write a historical? Just for the pretty dresses?

Samantha Kane said...

Anonymous~ There are a lot of readers like you, who prefer their historical fiction to have a more distinct historically accurate plot and tone. Which is wonderful, don't get me wrong. But the point is, there are books out there for all types of readers. And I think the reader has some responsibility here to find the ones that please them. For instance, I'm sure you can tell from reading the blurb if a book is going to have more anachronisms in terms of plot and tone than you like as a reader. And I hope, if that's the case, you pass them by.

I know that my blurbs make abundantly clear what my books are about, and yet I still have readers who complain the plot is anachronistic. I'm truly puzzled as to why they read my book if they already knew they wouldn't care for the plot. ::shrug::

As for why we choose an historical setting to discuss contemporary attitudes and behavior, there are several reasons. One is that frequently some aspect of the time period affects or causes the main conflict in our story. And the idea of addressing contemporary issues in literature through period settings is an old and trusted one. Again, I'm going to reference Shakespeare on this one. And finally, yes, sometimes it's as simple as the fact that we love the time period and want to write about the dresses. :-) And for many readers, that's what they want out of an historical romance. Again, different strokes for different folks.

I do have to agree with you on the distinction between a Regency couple and a Victorian couple. This is a matter of research, and a writer should know the difference.

Samantha Kane said...

JenB~ You crack me up. That's what content editors are for, doll. And I think the "sound natural" part is what counts.

Teresa~ That's what I like in my historicals, too. A feeling for the time period with a story I can relate to. And yes, a faster pace. I love Austen, but for my modern sensibilities it can bog down.

Samantha Kane said...

I am going to add to my comment to Anonymous, that I also think an author, editor and publisher have a responsibility to make sure the blurb on a book does not confuse a reader into thinking the book is what it isn't. I know some blurbs often focus on appealing to as large an audience as possible, and can be misleading as to the nature of the book.