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Avoiding anachronisms in fiction

Avoiding anachronisms in fiction

August 13, 2021 By Elizabeth Frazier Editing Skills

Halfway through a manuscript, the main character remarks that her hobby of refinishing furniture saves material from going to landfills. The proofreader points out that landfills weren’t a thing yet in this setting—at least not formally. It’s a small detail, but an important one.

Anachronisms can easily slip into manuscripts—especially fiction and historical fiction. Every reader could probably tell you of a moment they found one: a detail that’s not accurate for the book’s time period. By catching anachronisms, editors allow readers to stay engaged with a story and not be jarred by odd or confusing details.

But how do editors tackle this? It’s an odd balance of fact-checking, researching, and considering context. When do things become things? How do you determine when something was invented and then assimilated into popular culture? Does your main character’s dress have buttons when it should have a hook and eye clasp? How fast did steamships travel in the early 19th century?

Here are a few tips and tricks to help keep your facts from time traveling:

Communicate with the author to understand their research and research process. While some authors are strong researchers, relying on reputable sources and websites, others may not be so diligent. Having a sense of both what the author has researched and how they approach the writing process can give editors an idea of where to begin.

Compile and vet your sources. Using trustworthy and accurate sources is key, and there are a wealth of resources—usually free. Some that I love are Harper’s Weekly, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress database. The Google Books Ngram tool tracks the use of popular terms throughout history, which can be helpful when editing phrases and dialogue. Many local libraries have subscriptions to databases that cardholders can access for free. Databases like JSTOR or ProQuest give users access to invaluable historical documents.

Have a clear system for documenting what’s been fact-checked. I keep a Word document of facts for specific books and series. For time-slip or historical fiction, I also keep a spreadsheet of scenes and dates. The method of tracking matters less than keeping a consistent record.

Consider building an archive so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This was huge for me. Halfway through editing a detailed series set in the 1800s, I realized I’d bookmarked resources from a similar novel I’d edited earlier that year. I now have a longer document with links to sources organized by century and region.

Ask for help if you need it. One of the best parts of being an editor is the diverse interests and hobbies of my colleagues. They’ve often chimed in with knowledge of an era, place, or practice that I never would have assumed they knew about. Most people are generous in sharing knowledge about topics that interest them. If you work for a publisher that uses freelance editors or proofreaders, considering asking about their specific interests.

Keep the manuscript in mind. While readers will notice an obvious error, most will understand that language changes depending on context, usage, and a character’s background. Phrases or terms in dialogue may be adjusted for readability and tone. 

If the goal is to create a seamless experience for readers, eliminating anachronisms is pivotal to building trust with them and creating worlds they love. Use your best judgment—and your favorite resources—to help create an engrossing and believable story, right down to the last detail.

This article was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header photo by Alice Feigel on Unsplash.

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