Thursday, January 30, 2014

Avoiding the Pitfalls Historical Fiction – Part One by Amanda Cabot

Amanda Cabot
I was delighted when Dora invited me to visit Seriously Write. Then came the hard part: deciding which aspect of writing we should discuss. Since I write historical fiction, I decided to talk about some potential pitfalls, but rather than give you a dissertation that will make your eyes glaze over, I thought we’d have some fun. My version of fun, anyway. It’s a little quiz. The object is to see what’s wrong with each of the following selections.

The first one is from a book set in 1170. Yes, the Middle Ages.

“Can you not settle this peacefully?” Marguerite asked Alain. Surely he must see how conflicted she was by the situation.

“Perhaps I was mistaken,” Alain said, not bothering to hide his scorn, “but I thought it was a knight’s duty to protect his lady.”

Marguerite sighed. She wouldn’t go there. Instead, she nodded stiffly, then took her seat next to Louise. The teenager’s enthusiasm for the fight stood in marked contrast to her own reluctance to see blood shed. But the fight was over almost before it began. With one deft stroke, Alain sent Henri’s sword ricocheting against the wall.

If you guessed that there were anachronisms in it, you’re right. There are at least four. “Conflicted” came into general use in 1967. “Wouldn’t go there” is a phrase from the 1990s. “Teenager’s” first usage was 1921, and – this one surprised me – “ricocheting” wasn’t commonly used until 1828.

Why worry about anachronisms?

The first reason is that they brand you as a sloppy writer. You spend weeks, months, possibly years researching a book. The details of daily life are accurate; the speech patterns are authentic; you’ve even ensured that your characters eat common foods from the era. Why spoil the effect with an inappropriate term? Consider this: checking a word’s first usage is simply another form of research.

The second reason is that at least some of your readers will notice the anachronistic terms. For some it may be a mild annoyance. Others may find the errors so jarring that they stop reading. In either case, the suspension of disbelief that we strive so hard to create is broken, if only for a second. Don’t do it. Don’t risk losing readers.

Okay, are you ready for quiz number two?

At least it wasn’t raining. Normally he wouldn’t mind it. In fact, he preferred rain when going into battle. Unfortunately, today he wasn’t waging war, nor was he facing an opponent at the other end of a lance. It would have been easier if he were. Even a few hours at the quintain would have been preferable to the fate which was now mere minutes away.

The knight on the silver gray destrier let the reins slacken as he looked around him. Though the wheat field could not compare to the raw magnificence of Outremer, there was no denying its beauty. It spoke of fertile ground, of centuries of tradition, of home. This morn it also reminded Alain de Jarnac of the obligation awaiting him.

This is another selection from the same medieval. While there are no anachronisms in this passage, I would venture that some of the vocabulary made you pause. Admittedly, devotees of medievals are familiar with quintains (a post with a revolving crosspiece that knights used for training) and know that a destrier is a war horse. They’d also know that Outremer meant overseas and was a term used during the Crusades.

But – and this is an important “but” – many readers won’t recognize those terms. If a potential reader picked up the book and glanced at this passage, the chances are she wouldn’t buy the book, simply because of the unfamiliar words. You don’t want that to happen, and so I urge you not to fall into this potential pit.

Either use common words or include an explanation. For example, if the author had replaced the simple reference to a quintain with “a few hours of jousting against the revolving arms of the quintain post,” the reader would have understood what a quintain was and might have smiled over the fact that he’d learned something new. The key is never to make a reader feel stupid.

That’s all for today, but I’ll be back in two weeks for part two of the pitfall discussion. I hope to see you then.

Dora here. Did you pick up on the errors in these passages?
As a reader, what pitfalls throw you out of a scene?
As a writer, do you research word usages?

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When Elizabeth Harding arrives in Cheyenne to open a medical practice, she is confident that the future is as bright as the warm Wyoming sun. Certain she’ll have a line of patients eager for her services, she soon discovers the town may not welcome a new physician—especially a female one. Even Jason Nordling, the handsome young attorney next door, seems to disapprove of her chosen profession.

When a web of deceit among Cheyenne’s wealthiest residents threatens to catch Elizabeth and Jason in its snare, they must risk working together to save one of Elizabeth’s patients, even if it means falling in love.

From the time that she was seven, Amanda Cabot dreamed of becoming a published author, but it was only when she set herself the goal of selling a book by her thirtieth birthday that the dream came true.  A former director of Information Technology, Amanda has written everything from technical books and articles for IT professionals to mysteries for teenagers and romances for all ages.  She’s delighted to now be a fulltime writer of Christian historical romances.  Her Texas Dreams trilogy received critical acclaim; Christmas Roses was a CBA bestseller; and a number of her books have been finalists for national awards, including ACFW’s Carol award. 


  1. Looking forward to part two, Amanda.

    I got two and a half out of the first example. My ears perked at "conflicted," but I wasn't sure. I totally missed "richocheting." I can't tell you how many times I've been surprised by terms that were in use during my time period and others that weren't. Word usage is something I pay great attention to, but we all miss things. Unless it's really ridiculous, I won't stop reading if I'm enjoying the story.

  2. Great post, Amanda! Keep these tips coming! I don't like it when I'm reading a historical and words are thrown in the author doesn't bother to explain in context. Yes, I can look them up...but it is possible to introduce readers to a word (foreign or otherwise) IN CONTEXT or explain it somewhat so they sort of warm up to it! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sandra -- Ricocheting surprised me too. So did camouflage. I started to use it in a book set in the 1880s but decided I'd better check. It turned out to have been introduced after World War One. That makes sense, since it's a French word and the US had a lot of exposure to French when fighting in the trenches. I'm glad I caught it.

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Heather. Like you, I find it annoying when an author expects me to stop reading and look up a word. My response is to stop reading. Period.

  5. Super-enjoyed the post, Amanda. I write westerns but medieval lives deep in my heart. Although my first and only medieval will live forever under my bed, it's so awful.

    You kinda present two dilemmas...using language too modern and using language too archaic. I read a medieval written by a very famous author (who will remain nameless LOL) that I enjoyed but...the dialog was all twenty-first century, even using "okay." OKAY? Way too dumbed-down...

    Then again, readers don't seem to like 'Twas and all the speech that MIGHT help set the time period. And most medieval Brits spoke French anyway. Sigh.

    I know I'll enjoy your book! I love stories of strong women set in the west! Best of luck.

  6. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I would have been one of those readers who got tired of the unfamiliar words in the second example. In the first I would have been disappointed with the usage of modern language where it was obvious.

  7. Wonderful post and "timely" reminder for historical writers. Thanks!

  8. Historical writers have my utmost respect! Great post, Amanda. I'm looking forward to your next visit in a couple weeks. :)

  9. Tanya -- You're right that it's a fine line between being too modern and annoying readers. I find an occasional 'twas is enough to set the scene. After that, I know I'm in a different era and don't need to be reminded in every paragraph.

  10. Cecily, Davalyn and Dora -- I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed writing it!

  11. The medievals that annoy me the most are the ones that try to spell out a Scottish brogue. Yikes. No more "dinna" please, Like you say, set the tone with a 'Twas...or just say something about the thick Scottish burr when he speaks et al.

  12. Helpful advice, Amanda. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. Looking forward to your next time here.


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