Monday, December 4, 2023

Potholes of Historical Fiction 1.0: Anachronisms

Annamaria on Monday


Anachronisms show up all too often in films that take place in the past: like that reflection of a white commercial van in the window of a store that was supposed to be in Victorian London.  Or that character in a drama set in ancient Rome, who raised his hand in salute and was wearing a wristwatch.


Most historical novelists are careful to portray what life was really like in the period of their stories.  Friends of mine and I have discussed what we go through to make sure of all the details.  Some of us even look up the phase of the moon for the date in the story.  One said, "Since everything else is made up, we have to make the setting as real as we can, so we can imagine being there."


Many of us fear being caught out by knowledgeable, and sometimes even picayune readers. For instance, a historical novelist friend once got an email from a reader with a complaint about her story, which takes place in Harlem in NYC in the 1920s. One of my friend’s characters, trying to unlock her apartment door while carrying several bags of groceries, dropped all her purchases on the floor.  One of the spilled items was a box of Rice Krispies.  The accusatory email came from a person who worked for the cereal’s manufacturer.  He allowed as how the novel’s story takes place in March, but Rice Krispies were not on sale until the following September.  As we writers of fiction are fond of saying, “You can’t make this stuff up.”


The hardest challenge of all, for me anyway, is the conflict between modern attitudes and beliefs that were considered acceptable in the past.  It takes a lot of thought and cleverness to present mores and customs gone-by in a way that modern readers can see their reprehensible nature.


In this regard, the most remarkable of historical novels to me is John Fowles's the French Lieutenant's Woman.  Somehow, Fowles manages seamlessly to interject his narrator’s opinions. The characters are walking along talking to each other, and all of a sudden, the narrator starts commenting on the kinds of things people believed, and even long descriptions of how things were and who thought what. I've spent hours, days even trying to work out how he gets away with that kind of behavior, which would be verboten for a novelist lacking his brilliance.  I would love to be able to do what he does. If anybody has the slightest idea of how to go about it, I can only say, “HELP!”


The best I can do is to invent characters who, though living at the time of the story, have plausible reasons not to share the prevailing attitudes of the time. This difficulty was most pronounced when writing about British East Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. I certainly did not want to present the rather romantic place as the good old days of colonialism.  Characters who all have today's attitudes would be anachronistic in the extreme. I got around that in the only way I could, by populating the stories with key people who legitimately disapproved of what the King's loyal empire builders thought was admirable.

It says "Britain's Little War With
 'Unknown savages..'"


My three main characters look around them and know that a lot of the things that are happening are wrong, sometimes downright evil.  My folks are, for one reason or another, outsiders:


Vera McIntosh is the 19-year-old daughter of a Scottish missionary, the only white child in the area where she was born. Her playmates where Kikuyu children. She grew up with them, playing and learning their ways. She speaks their language. And she can see the world from their point of view as well as that of her parents. Because her father is a missionary, he is also teaching her values that the members of the colonial administration do not share.


Kwai Libazo is a tribal constable, working for the British police force.  He is half Kikuyu and half Maasai. Neither tribe has accepted him. So in that sense, he is an outsider too. He is working with a young, idealistic Assistant Superintendent of Police, whose passion in his work is to try to deliver justice. Kwai begins to see delivering justice as the reason for his existence.


Justin Tolliver is the second son of a Yorkshire Earl, and as such, his fate from birth was to serve in the British military.  He first arrived in South Africa with his regiment, visited British East Africa while there, and has fallen in love with its beauty and majesty. He wants to stay. But he cannot take the normal path for an aristocrat because his impecunious family cannot stake him the price of starting his own farm, even at the low cost of doing so. In order to find a way to stay, he volunteers to be transferred from the army to the quasi-military police force. He is that idealistic policeman who inspires Kwai Libazo with his devotion to justice.  Once Tolliver begins to fall in love with Vera McIntosh, he learns how her attitudes are much more likely to deliver real justice.


Once they walked into my mind, these three early 20th century people gave me a way of telling my stories with 21st Century sensitivity.  In a sense, they are in conflict with the history they are living through.  




  1. Thanks, Annamaria. It's important to think about these issues, and, as you say, the attitudes are for more difficult to handle than the wristwatches!

    1. So right, Michael. I like to put in things like watches and fountain pens, as long as they don’t distract from the story. When one of the characters reaches deep into his trouser pocket and pulls out a gold watch to find out what time it is, it reminds the reader that she or he has left the 21st century.

  2. Love this, AA! I've written before here how highly I hold Fowles, and so I totally agree on FLW. And I'm working on a historical myself at the moment, so this is enormously helpful. Thank you. xxx

    1. Thank you, Wendall. Talking about craft is always a challenge for me. Sometimes it seems to come across as a simple how to, but it never feels quite that easy when I am working on it.

  3. Another way, possibly, of solving the problem of presenting historical mores to modern readers, is to imagine (you're good at that, right? :-) that you're writing a FANTASY novel, rather than an historical, so you're working in information about something that NEVER WAS. Yeah, I know, that doesn't help, but SF and fantasy authors have to solve that problem constantly (some, of course, are more successful than others... :-).

    So, is there any hope that the next novel will finally see ink on paper within my lifetime? I know it's been a longer wait for you than for your faithful readers, but...