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Worlds Apart July 2007


The Dreaded Anachronism


“What does billiards have to do with anything?” you ask.  Well, billiards is mentioned in one of the most famous anachronisms in the English language, and anachronisms and similar inconsistencies are your worst enemy as you work to create another world.


An anachronism is something located in a time when it could not have existed.  A sort of anomaly.  In Act 2 - scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, which is set in classical Egypt, Cleopatra says ...let’s to billiards... but the problem is that billiards, although well known in Shakespearean England, wasn’t invented until at least twelve hundred years after Cleopatra’s death.  Anachronisms and inconsistencies have the power to destroy the sense of reality you have worked hard to create.


Glaring anachronisms are easy to avoid - no one would have Nero using a cell phone to describe the fires in Rome to his friends or portray Lord Nelson messaging to Captain Hardy on a blackberry - but the problem becomes a bit more subtle when you consider less obvious things.  Were potatoes eaten in seventeenth-century England, for example?  You’d better be sure before you have your characters enjoying them at dinner.  And when did people stop thinking tomatoes were poisonous? When, exactly, were newspapers first published?  Check it out before you have your sixteenth-century hero read one, and at the same time find out what people called them. 


I once read an historical novel set at the time of the Norman conquest of Britain, and the Battle of Hastings, 1066, figured prominently in the story. The author created a vivid picture of the battle, evoking realistic sights and sounds. He described the shouts of soldiers, the pounding hooves of armored cavalry horses and the thunderous roar of cannon.  All very exciting. The awkward thing, however, is that cannon were not used on European battlefields until the Battle of Crecy between England and France nearly three hundred years later.


By making that error, trivial as it may seem, the author of that novel destroyed the authenticity of the world he was creating for his readers.


“Well, who would know?” you ask. The answer is that there is always someone who knows, and what if that someone is the person who is reviewing your book or story? Anachronisms have to be found and weeded out.


In short, take nothing for granted.


Problems of consistency need special care if you are writing fantasy and speculative fiction.  In these genres you are creating a world, large or small, simple or complex, that has never existed before. You must create one that is consistent and understandable.  Anachronisms may not be your enemy in this case, but there are other pitfalls. A good first step is to check out the topics we’ve gone through in this series of articles.  Go through it and select a preliminary list of those cultural elements you think you might use.  Make sure nothing is at variance or out of place.  Establish an appropriate material culture, a religious system, a set of family and interpersonal relationships, or whatever your story requires.  Select only what you need, and begin to build your world.   


One element particularly critical to authenticity, realism, and consistency, is the language you and your characters use.  Nothing can destroy carefully crafted authenticity than the use of inappropriate or anachronistic words and expressions.  Regardless of the genre, location or time period, your characters must sound as if they belong in the world you create.  If they don’t, they will not be believable.  In Tudor England, for example, people never said holy smoke, but they often said God’s teeth, and gramercy (contraction of God’s great mercy)  instead. 


So take care always to be consistent and beware the dreaded anachronism. 


Billiards anyone?

Write on,