Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Dreaded Anachronism

Aline's blog about youthful slang hit a nerve with me. Nothing dates a book faster than slang. If you're paying attention, you can tell when the English-speaking characters lived just by their vocabulary. I am an historical novelist, so I don't have to worry about my dialog being dated before the book comes out. On the contrary, I'm always trying to figure out if my dialog, dialect, slang, is appropriate to the period. If there is anything that a historical novelist dreads, it’s anachronism--a thing out of time, an act whereby a thing, a custom, a word, is attributed to a period to which it does not belong. This is particularly bad in a historical novel because it will take your reader right out of the story if Queen Elizabeth (either one) says "Groovy man," or "that is phat!" Or if Caesar checks his Rolex before he conquers Gaul. Yet a historical novelist is not writing a history book. She is taking us back in time and letting us live in a different world for awhile.

How do you deal with historical terms that may be unfamiliar to the reader? How do you convey a sense of dialect or vocabulary of the time without being confusing or taking the reader out of the story? I deal with this constantly.

I've used this example before, but it is perfectly illustrative of the dialectic difficulties of the historical novelist:

I am proofreading my latest Alafair work in progress when I come across a sentence in which Alafair says:
"... it’s a big flap every night at bedtime until Mama or Daddy goes in there and knocks some heads together.”

"Hmm," I say to myself. "Would a person use the phrase 'big flap' in June of 1916? Perhaps I should look it up." So out comes the etymological dictionary, in which I discover that the first known use of the term 'big flap' was noted in 1916, being used on the battlefields of World War I among British soldiers.

All right, I think. Alafair, living in rural Oklahoma in mid-1916 would probably have not heard 'big flap' used like this, but she may very well have said 'big flapdoodle'. For according to the previously mentioned etymological dictionary, the word 'flapdoodle' was common in the U.S. and Europe dating from 1839. So I change 'flap' to 'flapdoodle', feeling very proud of myself.

One week later I'm doing historical research by reading a book which I had bought many years earlier at the Enid, Oklahoma, Historical Society entitled Reflections From the Roadside, a Quindecennial Chronology. This is a reprint of the diary kept by Oklahoma homesteader Henry Harrison Reynolds from January 1912 through December 1926. I am reading his entries for June 1916 just to see what's going on in the world that an ordinary person would remark upon and what do I see in the entry for December 1915? I quote:

"There has been a big flap for months over drilling a test well for the city north of town."

So when some reader tries to take me to task for using an anachronistic dialect terms, I can say with confidence and through direct experience that even the experts can be wrong.

It’s one thing to be accurate about historical events, dress, and vocabulary, but how do you go about making sure that your characters behave and think in a way that is appropriate to the time and place they live in? How do you handle it when your character doesn’t subscribe to the same cultural attitudes as you do? Try writing about Oklahoma in 1919 when perfectly nice people with all the good will in the world would use what today would be very offensive terminology without thinking twice about it. How do your characters deal with what we would now consider unsavory beliefs and mores like sexism/classism/racism?

In my novel Hell With the Lid Blown Off, I have a character who is homosexual, and lives in terror of discovery. No two ways about it. If he were discovered, it could be the end of him. And that is the way it was in middle America in the 1910s. After that book came out I got an email from a very troubled reader wondering what I was trying to say. Did the societal attitude in my book reflect my own attitude. To which I answered, God, no! But that’s the way it was, my dear, which is why it’s so important we don’t gloss it over. Remember how bad it was and make sure we never go back.


Rick Blechta said...

Very interesting post!

I think flapdoodle was a better word than flap to use. It's much more fun and has more energy.

Donis Casey said...

I thought so to, and "flapdoodle" is what ended up in the book. So all's well that ends well!

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