Anachronism in Historical Fiction

No matter how careful a writer is, or how much research s/he does, there’s always the possibility of anachronism showing up in historical fiction.

What’s an anachronism? It something that doesn’t fit into the time period you’re writing about. King Tut would not have worn a Stetson, nor could Marie Antoinette have worn nylon stockings. Of course not, you say, that would be ridiculous!


And yet there’s always something, it seems, that manages to slip through the cracks. I recently read a novel about Scottish characters who emigrate to America at the turn of the 20th century, pretty close to the Old West period that I write about. The book was good: the story well-told, the characters appealing, and there was just enough tension and conflict to hold my interest throughout.

Sounds like a great read, right? But the thing that I remember more than anything else is a breakfast scene. The young woman makes oatmeal for herself and her brother by putting the raw cereal into bowls and pouring hot water over it. Two minutes later, they sit down to eat.

Instant oatmeal? In 19th century Scotland? What made it worse was that the author had obviously done some research into the cookery of the time, and had explained how to make bannock (a quick bread), as well as colcannon (a traditional stew of potatoes, cabbage, leeks and cream), and the never-to-be-forgotten haggis. But the fact that even the finest steel-cut oats will take 15 to 20 minutes to cook over an open flame had somehow escaped her attention.

Some other examples:

  • In a book set in 15th century Italy, a character says, “You need to loosen up”. That’s a distinctly modern saying.
  • In a novel set in 19th century Ireland, the main female character is named Shannon. At that time Catholic girls were always named after saints; Anglican girls were named after their ancestors, or queens, Biblical women, and Roman empresses. Neither a Catholic nor an Anglican girl would have been named for a river.

So how do you avoid anachronisms in your manuscript? First research, then research, then research some more. And then find someone who’s as familiar with the era as you’ve become, and ask them to read your book before it goes out into the world to stand on its own. Chances are good that you’ll catch most of the major gaffs.

And the more meticulous and detailed your research is, the better the odds are that you’ll avoid the minor ones as well.

4 thoughts on “Anachronism in Historical Fiction

  1. Recently finished my historical novel set in 1753 colonial America. Some of the scenes were in Charleston, South Carolina. As I was writing the book I continued researching items as I moved through the story. I discovered that Charleston was actually Charles Town prior to 1783. Just one of many discoveries made along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First, love that picture.
    There are those who research and then those who pretend to be writing a story set to 1500’s who have done so little research that I am astounded that their betas have let them get away with it.
    I see a lot of gory stuff that simply cannot happen in real life. Setting it to a fantasy or science fiction world does not excuse anything.
    In doing my Zane Grey blog I discovered that there are a lot of bizarre myths about the Old West – like weapons, In general they had to be handed in to the sheriff and most people did not walk around with them. And the cruelty of the cowboy life. And the poverty of the cowboys.
    That era in history has been romanticised to an extent that if people from that time had read the stories they would not have recognized themselves.


  3. Yes, even Zane Grey (who is my favorite author ever) was not immune to glorifying the cowboy’s life. The job a cowboy had was really one of the most strenuous ever known. For between 6 bits (75 cents) and a dollar a day, he worked in all kinds of weather and sometimes around the clock. And still there were ranchers who deducted room and board from that paltry wage. And if the cowboy got hurt, that was the end of his employment. It was a tough life indeed.


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