#4: Avoiding Asinine Anachronisms
A few years ago, I was doing a historical accuracy edit of a novel that took place in Venice in June 1600. The protagonist was walking in a garden with a variety of blooming flowers. But these flowers posed two major problems for me: not all of them bloom in June, and many of them, like orchids and bougainvillea, weren’t cultivated in Europe until centuries later!
Such are the anachronisms waiting to sabotage your historical novel unless, even after all your research into the time period, you develop a sense of what to double-check. Because in the past 150 years or so, steamships and airplanes have pretty much brought everything everywhere to everybody, but before that many things were unavailable in many parts of the world.
Food, for instance. While writing about food in Legacy of Kings, I knew that sugar wasn’t brought to Europe until the fifteenth century and people in the ancient world ate honey or fruit as sweets. Juicy, plump peaches, I thought, would be delicious on my Legacy table. But because I knew that the historical accuracy of food—just like flowers—is tricky, I googled the history of peaches.
Sure enough, peaches were native to China and weren’t introduced to Europe until the adult Alexander opened up east-west trade years after Legacy takes place. So I took the peaches off the table and substituted plums. I thought surely we could keep the lemons in the 2000 BC Middle Eastern novella I was fact-checking, but their first appearance in Syria seems to have been almost two thousand years later!
Did you know, for example:
- Stirrups were invented by the Chinese in the fourth century AD and introduced to Europe hundreds of years later. And iron horse shoes as we know them weren’t widely used until the tenth century AD. Ancient Romans put sandals or boots on their horses’ hooves.
- Glass was rare and expensive for most of history. In Alexander’s time, the Egyptians made exquisite colored glass perfume bottles but no one in the world had a glass window pane.
- Soap as we know it wasn’t invented until the Middle Ages, and then it was used mostly for laundering clothing, not people, alas.
- Candles weren’t widely used until the early Middle Ages. My Legacy characters use little oil lamps.
And it’s not just physical stuff you need to check; you also need to investigate expressions and concepts. In Book 2 of the Legacy series, I have two characters sailing down the Nile in flood past the pyramids. I thought Heph might express his amazement at seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World, because I knew that list was ancient. But not ancient enough. When I checked, I found that a certain Antipater of Sidon compiled the list two hundred years after Alexander.
To check if something fits into your time period, google “history of” the thing (which usually take you to Wikipedia.) You might be surprised at how historically inaccurate it is. Nobody—no matter how many graduate degrees in a particular civilization they might have—can know everything, but you can develop a feel for the kinds of things you need to look up.
Remember: If in doubt, check it out!
Next week: using tone and dialog to keep your world real.
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