Showing posts with label anachronisms. Show all posts
Showing posts with label anachronisms. Show all posts

15 August 2018

Time Warp


Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 

20 November 2016

Timeless Prose


by Leigh Lundin

It’s amazing when you realize many of our grandparents were raised in a horse-and-buggy era and eventually saw us land a man on the moon. Yet among us reside Millennials who’ve never been without a computer or HDTV, a microwave or a cell phone. With rapid technological evolution, we can hardly fault them for any lack of historical perspective, never mind survival skills.

Children of my acquaintance were devastated when they wanted to make popcorn and the microwave broke. Their auntie calmed them and found a lidded pot in the kitchen cupboard. As the kids watched in open-mouth wonder, she ripped open the familiar Orville Redenbacher packets and poured them into the cookware, added butter and placed the lid on. Five minutes later the kids happily munched popcorn in awe of their aunt's accomplishment. Who knew?

Working antiques surrounded us kids on a centuries-old, self-sufficient farm steeped in family history. I still keep antique ‘coal oil’ lamps to light when the power goes out. Our childhood provided a sense how our pioneer ancestors lived, so when I read an incongruity, it really jars.

David Edgerley Gates has touched upon the subject of anachronisms. Among other issues, he raises the topic of modernisms in period speech. I agree, although I give British author Lindsey Davis a pass because her characters are so engaging.

Getting it Right

A couple of years ago when I was critiquing a teenager’s story for his literature class. It was set, if I remember right, in the 1980s. His on-the-run hero escapes on a jet-ski and phones his girlfriend. Our conversation went something like:
“He phones his girlfriend? With what?”
“A phone, of course.”
“In 1985?”
“Sure.”
“While piloting his jet-ski?”
“Yes.”
“You don’t see the problem?”
“With what?”
“Cell phones in the 1980s?”
“They didn’t have them?”
“Correct.”
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure.”
“What did you use?”
“Pay phones and you needed a quarter.”
“What about a two-way radio?”
“Sure, a walkie-talkie might work.”
“But no cell phones?”
“Nope. Car phones were available in the ’70s, but they came in a briefcase and were expensive.”
“That’s a real pain.”
“That pretty well sums it up.”
Getting it Wrong

Somewhat defensively, Quentin Tarantino hyped the historicity of Django Unchained. Examples escape me, but the glaring inaccuracies and anachronisms must have jolted historians.

In one of his Rumpole of the Bailey stories, John Mortimer introduces a celebrity historical romance author beloved by the public and especially the judge. Rumpole, however, feels plagued by her wildly inaccurate juxtapositions of people, places and things as much as a century or so apart. Technically, this type of error– mixing periods– is called metachronism.

Kick the Can

I was critiquing a Southern antebellum novel about a plantation owner’s wife and a slave. I found quibbles, but a scene in one of the early chapters brought me up short. In it, the slave was drinking from a tin can. Whoa, I told the author, tin cans as we know them are a 20th century invention. I offered citations pointing out early tin cans, circa WW-I. The writer refused advice, partly because of ‘atmosphere’, but she also claimed an unnamed historical source despite my research. The anachronism spoiled the atmosphere for me.
[British canning technology may have preceded and surpassed that of North America in the 1800s. A reader has pointed out that while cans were a 19th century invention, the modern tin can as we know them originated around 1900 and came into use by WW-I, not WW-II as the article originally stated. The reader included photos of tins from WW-I and from Scott’s Antarctic expedition dated 1911 that are virtually indistinguishable from modern cans.]
Maschinengewehr MG42In the Spaghetti Western The Grand Duel (Il Grande duello also called The Big Showdown), the effeminate psychopath, Adam Saxon, mows down a wagon train with a machine gun. I don’t know much about machine guns, but it looked oddly out of place, not like Civil War engineering at all. I suspected it was closer to WW-I era, but I underestimated. It turns out the Maschinengewehr was a German WW-II MG42, first introduced in 1942, about ¾-century after the setting of that Old West movie.

Many movies feature British Intelligence or the OSS infiltrating Nazi strongholds, plots that have fed the film industry for decades. Typical gadgetry features lots of knobs and dials and… LEDs, not commercially viable until about 1970. A few may show Nixie tubes, but even those weren’t invented until 1955.

Listen, Punk

In steampunk, you can invent anything you want– LCDs, Nixie tubes, plasma graphics. If you write historicals, you can’t.

Details, Details

Sometimes writers introduce errors that have little to do with anachronisms. As much as I admire The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, the authors, Larsson and Lagercrantz (or possibly their translators) make mistakes about handguns. They mention a revolver when they mean an automatic, refer to a telescopic sight when Lagercrantz probably intends a laser sight, and portray Blomkvist with his finger jammed in the trigger guard of a machine pistol when the author probably meant between the trigger and the body of the weapon. Small things but I give Larsson credit for portraying computers and networks in a realistic manner. (He also named a couple of characters Lundin, so I can’t bicker too much.)

Without local mystery authors, in my early days I worked with romance writers, particularly my editor/teacher friend Sharon. One of Sharon’s favorite authors referenced a car several times in the novel, perhaps something like a Pontiac Bonneville. Sharon realized the details were all wrong, invalidating part of the plot line in her head.

I’ve saved the worst for last.

Red Sage Publishing specialized in novella anthologies called Secrets. One of their American authors set her story in Scotland… and kept referring to the Scottish mesquite.

Oops.

What errors and omissions bug you?

02 October 2014

Anachronism Revisited


In May of last year I wrote an extensive post on what I deemed "Cosplay in Fiction." In that post I
Not THIS kind of cosplay
promised to elaborate further on what constitutes "cosplay" in historical fiction in my next post.

I didn't.

And I'm still mulling how best to elaborate and wrap up that subject in a blog posting to appear in this space in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean-time I intend to explore a tangential line of thought, centering on examples of what works and what doesn't in the historical mystery author's quest to bring believable, engaging historical fiction to the modern reader. And I'm going to spread it out over a number of my upcoming blog posts.

You see, this year I have the great privilege of moderating an historical mystery fiction panel in November, at Bouchercon.

So as I've been turning over in my mind the questions I plan to put to some of the best historical mystery novelists around, my mind rolled back to the post linked above, and the question of anachronism in historical fiction.

And not surprisingly, I've got a few thoughts.

Not THIS type, either
Not least of which is what works and what doesn't when attempting to evoke a certain time period. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the historical mystery juggling act: paint a picture of life in another era, likely with characters who speak a language other than English, and still make them seem natural and unaffected, all without diving so deep into period language that the modern reader does not get either lost or completely put off.

No mean feat.

And THIS? Just flat out disturbing....
I have some examples of what I think works, and what I think doesn't. And as always, I'm prepared to share.

As I said, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. Partly, as I said above, because of Bouchercon and partly because of my own on-going final pass through a long-percolating historical mystery novel of my own.

Let me state at this point that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who attempts this ludicrous balancing act– whether they fail or succeed. I for one have always found it a formidable challenge, and feel I've failed more times than I've succeeded. (Which is a large part of the reason that the final draft of my current book project is my third complete draft!).

And with that said, let's move on to what works, and what doesn't. This week's entry:

Slang!

I was reading a mystery novel a while back and a fairly innocuous turn of phrase knocked me completely out of the story- you know, that experience that is usually the last thing any author wants to foist upon their audience.

The phrase in question was "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Now, the author of the book in question is British and, although I'm an American, I'm fairly
Not THIS type of anachronism
Anglophilic, and am comfortable with British slang expressions, so ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me.

The problem was two-fold: the setting, and the character speaking. It wasn't set in modern England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. And the speaker wasn't a citizen of any of those countries.

The character in question was a citizen of ancient Rome, speaking to another citizen of that city, in
that city, circa 80 A.D.

Hello, Anachronism!

Now, I get what the writer in question was trying to do. Trying to portray ancient Romans talking casually with each other, in an intimate, familiar manner. No mean feat, seeing as they spoke Latin and not English.

At the very least wouldn't they have said something like, "Don't get your sublegaria* in a twist"?

I mean, the only way this character could have sounded more out of time would be if he had suggested to his comrade that he "slow your roll"!

The problem for me as a reader at this point was that, while I was and am willing to concede that Romans, like every other variety of human being since the dawn of time, had their own pet slang phrases and humorous sayings, I had a hard time believing that they used this particular one.

Further compounding the problem was the fact that the speech in this novel was so anachronistic that it pulled me right out of the story. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the story I kept picturing these ancient Roman characters speaking with cockney accents. At any moment I expected them to break in rhyming slang!

This brought to mind an author who actually gets this sort of thing right. I have raved before about the writing of Philip Kerr, a British author of the Bernie Gunther series of novels, set in Nazi and post-war Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my money Kerr gets Gunther just right: in some ways a morally compromised figure (as many
Germans who survived the first world war and the subsequent years-long party which was Weimar Germany of the 1920s were);former homicide detective and sometimes private investigator who has repeated dealings with the Nazis while never becoming one of them or buying in to what they were selling.

Gunther is truly a man of his time, believing, as many in Germany quietly did, that the Nazis were by turns keystone cops and murderous thugs. And even during his dealings with them he manages to chart a course that leaves him (for the most part) morally clean.

What helps Kerr really sell Gunther and the rest of his cast of period characters as believable avatars of the period in question is his ability to take German slang from that time and translate it into English, without it losing its period flavor.

For example, a pistol is a "lighter." A cigarette is a "nail" (for your coffin, obviously).  When asked during a 2009 interview whether these slang words were genuine or of his own invention, Kerr said:

"The slang is not my own invention nor is it anything to do with the police. The words are often more literal translations of real German phrases instead of their English equivalents. It's as simple as that."

With all due respect, the man is being far too modest. It's not as simple as that. While it's true that Nazi Germany is a period of history which has passed down to us a wealth of first person narratives (much of it truly horrifying), the skill herein lies in the choice of these words, knowing which concepts fit into the dialogue without extensive explanation, seamlessly, if you will.

Imagine trying to do that with such freighted concepts as gleichschaltung (the notion of every aspect of a society fitting together and working like cogs in a machine, keeping that society moving and well-run) or the ever-popular schadenfreude (joy experienced as a result of witnessing the suffering of others).

Sometimes it's what you don't try to say that sells your story. The key is in knowing what works, and what doesn't.

Making your Roman citizen sound like a cockney cab driver? Not so much. Having your German detective light up a nail, or take a lighter away from a drunken member of the Hitler Youth? Perfect.

Next time, more of what works, and what doesn't in historical fiction!