Wednesday, and Susan Sarah here. We’ve talked before about anachronisms in writing historicals, and I ran smack into this recently while writing a quick description of a woman’s hair in a late medieval context. Her hair is auburn, a dark red-brown. So I was searching for a phrase to conjure the sleek, polished sheen of the length of her hair, having used auburn the page before. Red, brown, auburn…the color of polished mahogany….
But wait! It can’t be mahogany-colored. I know this because, pen poised (or fingers poised over keyboard) I stopped to look this up. Mahogany was discovered by Europeans (South American people had known about it for a while) around 1500, and it wasn’t until after 1600 that it began to appear with any regularity in European and British furniture-making.
Historical context will sometimes determine the use of words and phrases in text and dialogue. Certain words and expressions that come readily to us, the authors and readers, are anachronistic, out of their time sequence, in a historical novel. Seemingly innocuous, they can tear the fabric of the historical context a little–too many, or just the right (or wrong) one can jar the reader out of that world.
Such as mahogany. Or walnut (another wood not used very early). Coffee. Chocolate. Cocoa. Tea.
I’m thinking of these words as adjectives and used in description, not as objects and items. Like, chocolate-colored satin. Water the color of weak tea. That sort of thing.
An author friend once told me, when she made the transition from medievals to nineteenth century, that she felt liberated in the writing–-for the first time she could use words like coffee, chocolate, tea, pastry, diamond, upholstered…and a whole slew of more “modern” words (for the 1800s), objects, concepts. She didn’t have to stop and think about it, or take a few minutes (or longer, alas, sometimes) to look the danged thing up. This happens frequently when writing medievals, and less so with later time settings, but it is a consistent consideration for any historical writer.
Mentioning an orange sunset, for instance, in a medieval–but how do you describe that color, without that great word, "orange"? It’s an interesting dilemma that comes up with many other words, like mauve (a no-no until late nineteenth century), maroon, turquoise, aqua, citrus, lime, lemon, orange, tobacco brown, puce (pretty color, awful word!).
Other simple things can trip one up, reader or author. A medieval hero may catch a hare while hunting, but it better not be a rabbit until after the 12th century–-they were introduced to Britain from Europe. Wolves were hunted in the extreme and became extinct in Scotland and Britain after the 1670s (where does that leave all those historical werewolves?). Falconry flourished…but don’t give a Harris hawk to your historical characters, even though they are commonly flown today (and appeared in that most sacred and adored of movies, Ladyhawke) –they didn’t occur naturally in Britain or Europe.
At what point is it okay to use the word “fathom” –- as in “he couldn’t fathom it” -– well, not in a medieval, nor even a Tudor-set novel, though the word has Greek and Old English origins. I once had the word “hothead” in a medieval book flagged by a copyeditor. I squeaked it through anyway, but it didn’t qualify for use, according to Webster’s finest.
What about the staff and stuff of life, bread, wheat, corn, barley, and so forth? Wheat was not grown in most of Scotland, for example, and for a very long time (even centuries) they didn’t have the knack of yeast breads, especially in the Highlands. If you read a medieval Scottish novel and the characters are tearing into a fresh loaf of hot bread, feel free to shriek “no, no, it ain’t so!” (unless those characters are in a Lowland monastery run by English monks). And “corn” in British-set novels is a very confusing term to American readers especially. The English used “corn” as a general term for a variety of grains. We understand it as, well, corn.
Weaponry is another topic where one can easily trip up, and jar the story loose from its historical moorings. Even if the author abhors violence and doesn’t want her gentlemen, lords, dukes, earls, or ruffians fighting, a passing knowledge of weapons is essential to any historical writer, for fast referral. A rapier is neither saber nor broadsword, a broadsword is not a claymore, a dirk is not a dagger (not always anyway), a basket-hilt appears first in Scotland and only after a certain date, and on certain blades. A wheel-lock is not a fire-lock, a pistol or gun can be either. A glass is not necessarily a goblet or a cup, a flask is not a wine bladder, a girdle is a griddle (not a corset), a crusie is a lamp, not an author (couldn’t resist that one! *g*).
Some phrases that we’re used to hearing won’t ring true. A Regency hero, for instance, drawling “Oh, right,” in a sarcastic tone. Or a medieval hero snapping, “Not!” (I’ve seen both in books). On the other hand, it’s possible to adapt a modern tone to a historical for an upbeat, light, more immediate tone. We’ve all seen this done very well in novels as well as movies. A Knight’s Tale and Marie Antoinette are good examples of this. In historical novels, the author needs a good ear and a certain gift to pull it off, but it can be successful and really enjoyable.
It’s not always necessary to be the Anachronistic Police…but it is good for a writer to absorb research in passing and absorb language tone of whatever time frame the story is in, and it helps to be aware of quick, casual language and references used in text and dialogue. Though most readers will be forgiving about out-of-context references to the color of polished mahogany, coffee-brown satin, or lemon-yellow ribbons, sometimes little words like those can shake a historical framework.
Have you all come across this sort of thing in novels? I figure it falls into three categories: A) it drives one nuts, B) it’s barely noticeable, or C) the modern context of a word or phrase now and then can bridge the historical setting of the novel to our own time. Whatcha think?