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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Hunting Anachronisms

Hunting Anachronisms

It’s hunting season! But a gun is not my weapon of choice – and neither is that book on the right, although it was the first thing I bought for the job.
When you write historical fiction, it takes a lot of effort to get the details right. And believe me, I try to do my homework, even in the first draft. I tend to focus on plot and setting: Can Verity take a train to Catawissa in 1867? (Yes.) Would doctors coming out of the Civil War understand the importance of washing their hands and instruments in preventing infection? (The open-minded ones were just beginning to realize.) How does one quickly empty the cylinders in a Civil War era revolver? (My brother-in-law Larry is my #1 go-to man for all weapons-related questions.) What books might Nate have on his reading shelf? (Dr. Kane’s Arctic Explorations was a must!)
Harder to pin down is the actual word usage of the time period – phrases, expressions, figures-of-speech.
And, um, I make mistakes.
To carry a torch for someone – that’s safe, right? Torches are old. Caveman old. But the phrase is not. It’s actually a reference from an obscure Broadway song, dated 1927.
To keep track of someone or something – 1883.
To hightail it – 1885.
Once I start looking, they’re everywhere.
When I was first asked by my editor at Clarion to eliminate anachronistic language in THE CAGED GRAVES, I wanted to find a good resource to help me. That book I bought – Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English – weighs 5lbs, 3.75 ounces, is printed in miniscule type, and has a bunch of pages bound out of order. And in spite of its 1400 pages, most of the words and phrases I’ve tried to look up … aren’t in there! No wonder it was ex-libris!
I’ve actually found Dictionary.com to be a fairly helpful resource. It has word history listings for quite a number of phrases. Krystalyn Drown also shared this resource at ipl2.
If all of the resources above fail me and I can’t date something, then I just remove the questionable phrase.
There’s always another way to say it.
Have YOU used any anachronisms today?

13 Responses to Hunting Anachronisms

  1. Sarah says:

    WOW–this is so fascinating! I definitely think about this, but don’t have to do it so strictly because I don’t write historical. But I recently wrote something set in a fictional society with early 1900s technology, and I had to keep in mind that my MC would not be thinking something “sucked” or was “awesome.” Because the society was not Western and not Judeo-Christian, I also had to keep all references to saints, devils, angels, Jesus, God, etc., out, and that was actually the place where I kept tripping up! Fascinating stuff, Dianne, and great post!

  2. It’s not an issue for me because of what I write, but I’d imagine you have to be really eagle-eyed. You just know that the one that gets through will be spotted 🙂

  3. Linda G. says:

    This is why I write contemporary urban fantasy. *grin*

    But I do love reading references like this for fun — I think the evolution of language is fascinating.

  4. One thing about writing historical fiction is the people reading your book weren’t alive then, either. You obviously can’t get away with making references to today’s current events, (unless it’s a tongue-in-cheek bit of humor) but you do have a lot of leeway in the phrases your characters use. I mean, who’s gonna argue with you?

  5. mshatch says:

    I had to do a bit of research in that department for a few of my books. Luckily, the book I’m working on now is contemporary so I don’t have to worry too much about anachronisms.

  6. JEM says:

    Oh, love this post. I’m working on a way history story right now, and taking a lot of liberties with it. I previously wrote a turn of the century manuscript and did a ton of research for that, but found that the research bogged down the story flow for me. So I wrote it, did a bunch of research, then updated it. This time around I’m researching in bits and pieces when I really need to know something, but not overwhelming myself with details until the editing process. It’s fascinating that your editor asked you to eliminate such language, I wouldn’t have expected that. I might end up borrowing that book some day :).

  7. Funny you should have this post this week. I got caught on a misplaced one in my critique group this Saturday. It was kind of a “duh” moment when she brought it to my attention.

  8. Oh, I totally get where you’re coming from! When writing my Viking fiction novel, I constantly referred to an Old Norse dictionary. Of course, we have no idea how they really talked EXACTLY, but we do have some words that could FIT into more understandable phrases.

    I’m with you, if you’re not sure, ditch the phrase. Some people might read it and care less that you used it, but for serious history buffs (who often pick up your book b/c they know that time period well), you want to make it as authentic as possible.

    I was in an excellent historical fiction critique group, and I most valued advice on chapters from a man very familiar w/the archeology/history of the Viking age. It’s lovely to have someone like that to bounce things off of!

    But I know how time consuming those cross-references can be–hoping it goes smoothly for you!

  9. That brings editing to a whole new level. Thank God (anachronism, maybe?) that I don’t have to watch for those tricky little monsters (another anachronism) yikes!

  10. Oh my goodness- I had not considered this for writing historical!!! The only thing I need to get rid of is cliches (and adjectives, and…). Wow, I’ll agree, fascinating. Good luck, you!

  11. Thanks for the post! I love the examples. It sounds so challenging just to find them. But it does seem like looking so closely at the words would make everything better. How many other things do you find that way? Is it changing other things? I need to do this to my book, not because I know yet weather I can get away with anachronisms or not, but because I’d love to just know what my tendencies are.

  12. Al says:

    Have you tried the Oxford English Dictionary?

  13. Lenny Lee* says:

    hi miss dianne! i gotta tell you i never heard that word and i went and looked it up. for sure i didnt ever think about it for my stories but it i ever do historical stuff for sure im gonna be real careful. im thinking for sure in your story no ones gonna say “wow how cool is that.” ha ha. thanks for teaching me more good writing stuff.
    …hugs from lenny