Phantom Camels, Untimely Clocks and Leapfrogging Idioms

Jeanne Matthews 2Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press.  Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust.  Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels.  She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor.  Her Boyfriend’s Bones, the fourth book in the series, is in bookstores now and Where the Bones Are Buried will be out in January 2015.  You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at www.jeannematthews.com.

Archaeologists dispute the use of camels for transportation in the Book of Genesis, claiming that dromedaries weren’t domesticated until centuries later. Historians point out that a clock could not have chimed the hour for Julius Caesar, as Shakespeare imagined, because the mechanical clock had yet to be invented. And persnickety fans of the period drama Downton Abbey keep lists of idioms that would never have come out of the mouths of people in that day and age. When Ethel the maid pipes up with “I’m just sayin’” or Thomas the footman complains “our lot always get shafted,” the dialogue has leapfrogged the 1920s and landed squarely in the modern era. Recently, viewers spotted a plastic water bottle atop the Downton mantelpiece and sent up a chorus of tut-tutting. Timing is everything and since I have started writing my first historical novel, I’ve become acutely aware of the importance of placing every single thing in its proper time.

My work-in-progress is set in Chicago in the 1860s and I’ve been surprised to discover that a lot of things I thought of as later inventions were already in use. Elevators, burglar alarms, jackhammers, motorcycles, potato chips, dental floss, and mass-produced toilet paper to name but a few. Things not yet dreamt of include zippers, tattoo machines, earmuffs, ice cream sodas, and the concept of female equality. An American woman in the 1860s was constrained by more than her corset. Note to self: Don’t let the heroine sound too pushy. And don’t give her a modish moniker like Caz or Zoomy. Keep the characters’ names appropriate to the period, even the horses’ names. Although a horse named Skyscraper did in fact win The Derby at Epsom Downs in 1789, the first ten-story “skyscraper” wasn’t built until 1884. Readers unfamiliar with matters equestrian would assume such a name in 1860 was an anachronism.

The dictionary defines an anachronism as a chronological inconsistency – a custom, an event, an object, or a word that belongs to a different age. Except in the time-bending genre of steampunk where sci-fi technology coexists harmoniously with Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens, anachronisms tend to jolt the reader out the story. If you import a cannon from the Middle Ages into a tale about cavemen, you’ll get letters. But it’s disconcerting how many ways anachronisms can sneak in, no matter how careful you are. Even if you stick to the technology available at the time, unless you’ve operated a particular piece of antique machinery, you might err in describing the way it functioned. Even if you cleave to the period vocabulary, words had different connotations to people a century ago, let alone several centuries ago. Meanings have changed. Cultural tastes and attitudes have changed. Interpretations of history have changed.

The changes in swearing are cause for particular concern to writers of historical fiction. In days of yore, people vented their spleens with language much different from that used by, say, Tony Soprano or Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. In my opinion, a lot of originality has been lost since Tristram Shandy swore, “By St. Booger and all the saints at the backside door of purgatory!” But what was considered vulgar, blasphemous, and obscene to Tristram and earlier generations sounds quaint and ludicrous to ears accustomed to saltier stuff. O tempora o mores. It presents an author with a dilemma. Can you convey to a modern audience the depth and richness of a character’s rage with the euphemistic likes of “Consarn you!” or must you resort to the f-bomb even if it’s anachronistic?

Bones of ContentionBen Schmidt, a thirty-something historian at Northeastern University, can reduce to a minimum, if not entirely eliminate, the problem of anachronisms for those able to afford his services – primarily the makers of TV shows and movies. Schmidt has designed a computer program that consists of a Google database containing the full text of some six million books. When a script is fed into the program, its algorithms identify the words and phrases that had not entered the parlance of the era in question and print them out for the writers to reconsider. From there on, it’s a matter of authorial judgment.

I strive for historical accuracy, but I’m not a stickler. After all, we are talking about historical fiction. I pity the writers of Downton Abbey, relentlessly criticized for anachronisms such as “I couldn’t care less” (circa late 1930s), “get knotted” (mid-1960s); and the kitchen maid caught humming “Fly Me To The Moon” (composed in 1954). No writer can translate with perfect authenticity a past he or she has not inhabited. A cliché from the 1970s springs to mind: “You had to be there.” The best we latecomers can do is read extensively, research thoroughly, and try not to “jump the shark” (1977), timewise.

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11 thoughts on “Phantom Camels, Untimely Clocks and Leapfrogging Idioms

  1. Amen, and Amen! To me historical accuracy is a must. Nothing will pull me out of a story (and send said book slamming against the wall!) faster than an egregious historical error. If a writer cares enough to write the book, she should care enough to respect both history and her readers’ intelligence.

  2. Great piece and definetely “food for thought.” I wonder what era that one comes from. I don’t write historical fiction, but I think the general idea also applies to character. Some curse, some don’t. Some use slang, some don’t. Jarring if one steps out of character, as well as out of their historical period. Thanks.

    • Kathleen, one of my favorite reference works is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which gives the etymology of many sayings and expressions. The whole book is “food for thought,” although it doesn’t give the origin of that particular saying.

  3. Your Dinah Pelerin series takes us to many climes and explores subcultures, antiquities and murder from Australia to Greece to Berlin with great ease. Now that you are branching out to historical fiction I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

    Thanks for sharing these insights about your research and the challenges involved… as a writer, I know how important telling (and accurate) details are to creating authentic, believable settings and characters. I’m sure your new book will be the cat’s pajamas.

    • Thanks so much, Joyce. As a matter of fact, “the cat’s pajamas” originated in America in about 1900 and became current in England in the ’20s and ’30s. “I’m beginning to dig this time travel stuff,” she said, leaping into the ’60s.

  4. Very enlightening . I don’t write historical fiction but this commentary will make me a more acute reader. A professor of mine at Brandeis University. Max Lerner, wrote a very interesting book whose theme was how inventions such as the escalator, the sewing machine, the Sears Roebuck catalogue, changed American history.

  5. Jeanne, I’m of the “It’s all gotta be accurate” persuasion. A good friend asked me to read his ms, a novel featuring Boudica, the queen of a Celtic tribe c60A.D. It was a fine story, but there were a few instances of use of modern slang, such as Boudica “bitching,” and they all yanked me out of the narrative. Some excellent historical novelists say they will change the date of a historical event by a few years if the event was not a major one, and if that will help the story, but I prefer to keep my history honest, and build the fiction on it as it’s recorded. If there are anachronisms in my ragtime mystery trilogy, they are not intentional. If you want me to not throw your book against the wall, please don’t jazz the history in it.

  6. Good blog, Jeanne. As for words in their centuries, there are clauses/words still used today that were founded deep within the past. But to use them, causes the reader to jolt his/her head back. Sometimes, due to their popularity today, even tho they were used in the past, you still cannot use them. Does this make sense?

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