The most-common ways authors mess up when writing historical novels
Writing any book is tough enough, but stepping back in time to create characters from previous centuries presents a yawning trap for today’s writers. As an author myself, I struggle with anachronisms — for instance, I only recently learned that the term “grandfather clock” wasn’t in common use until the late 1800s — after an 1876 song called “My Grandfather’s Clock” became popular. Before that, they were called “longcase clocks.”)
But it isn’t just material goods that create problems for historical writers. Here are the top five ways we all tend to get it wrong:
Using modern speech. We’re so used to our ordinary way of talking that modern expressions often slip into our characters’ dialogue and thoughts. While expressions like “Get a grip” and “I haven’t got a clue” are pretty obvious, others aren’t quite so easy to weed out. Like the nineteenth-century character who tells his grandson, “I don’t like the people you’re hanging around with.” Or the narrator of a novel set in 1066 who says, “They took off into the woods.” Or the Regency heroine who says the hero has derailed her train of thought – before trains and rails were commonplace. Or a hero from the 1820s who says, “I didn’t come here to be analyzed like some patient in a mental asylum” – 70 years before Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis. A more subtle (but still disconcerting) example is the heroine who says to the hero, “You think everything is all about you, Your Grace.”
Including modern attitudes. Far too often in romance fiction, people who were supposedly born and reared in the 1300s or the 1500s or the 1800s think and talk and behave as though they just stepped out of Starbucks holding a latte. It’s true that in order to appeal to today’s reader, main characters tend to be more modern in outlook than their real life peers would have been. But when characters don’t even stop and think about it before they spout today’s perspectives on things like religion, lifestyles, and women’s rights, or when they display today’s understanding of psychology, hygiene, nutrition, and medicine, it’s tough to make the reader believe they’re real.
Messing up titles. The most common error when it comes to using aristocratic titles is using the wrong form of address, or using multiple forms of address for the same person. Lady Sarah Winchester isn’t the same person as Lady Winchester is. (Lady Sarah is the daughter of a peer, Lady Winchester is Lord Winchester’s wife.) Lord Winchester isn’t the same person as Lord Randolph Winchester. (Lord Randolph Winchester is the younger son of a duke or a marquess, Lord Winchester is the big cheese himself.) Sir James Smythe is always Sir James, not Sir Smythe. When the author doesn’t realize there’s a big difference between variations which seem so small, it’s easy to dismiss the story entirely.
Not understanding the rules of inheritance. In the eras most commonly used in historical fiction, illegitimate sons could not inherit titles – period. Oldest sons could not be bypassed in favor of younger ones. Daughters could not pass along titles, except for a very few cases by royal decree. Most often, all the land and money was left to the eldest son. I remember an author who made her heroine a duchess… but not by having her marry a duke, which would be the only way for her to achieve that rank. Instead, this heroine got her title because her grandmother, who was the previous duchess, abdicated and bypassed her daughter in favor of her granddaughter. That’s at least three kinds of impossible.
Just plain getting it wrong. Why bother to look it up when we can make it up? It’s tempting to assume that our vague recollection of the timeline is accurate, or figure that if some other historical author used it, we don’t need to check for ourselves.
A few prize-winning examples: The Regency hero and heroine who honeymooned on an ocean liner – decades before ocean travel started to be comfortable. The maid who says to her mistress, “It’s chilly; you should wear your wool kid gloves” – they can’t be both wool and leather. The hero and heroine who run away from a London ball to Gretna Green, arriving there early the next morning – but traveling 320 miles took at least 36 hours in those days. A Regency hero and heroine who get married at St. George’s Cathedral – St. George’s Hanover Square is a simple parish church, not a cathedral.
This trap yawns equally wide for authors writing in other historical periods. Take a Viking romance which refers to potatoes – five centuries before they were introduced to Europe. Or a story set in 1949 where the narrator says, “He passed out after we hit the interstate” – years before the interstate highway system was even proposed.
Some of these things sound pretty obvious when we look at them in a list. But beware – they can sneak up and attack us when we’re not paying attention.