Friday, June 8, 2012

Book Bloopers

Picture it. Your favourite reading spot. A great book and time to enjoy it. Hours have ticked by, you are back in time, totally immersed in romance or adventure. The tension builds, you hold your breath, something pivotal is about to happen...

Suddenly in Regency England they are celebrating Thanksgiving, measuring things in fourths or punching the air in celebration. Whether it is Julius Caesar sucking in oxygen, or collateral damage in the Boer war, such things will spoil the reader’s enjoyment.

Maybe it is a historical fact left unchecked...something being shown before it existed like clan tartans in twelfth century Scotland, or a camera in Regency England. Perhaps a bygone character might say, "get with it," or something else that screams twenty-first century slang.

Or a small simple detail...

A story set in fourteenth century France where one of the characters is said to have worn a beret - berets only came about in 1830's!


A Regency era hero complaining about the "simpering females at White's." However White's was a men's club, so there were no females, simpering or otherwise, to be found therein!

Also look out for anachronisms. 

These can pull a reader right out of your story. Are your medieval warriors dining on corn on the cob even though corn wasn't introduced to England back then? Does your heroine read by gaslight in 1800, even though that wasn't introduced to London until 1817? Is the Regency family gathered around Christmas tree? This tradition did not exist until Prince Albert married Queen Victoria...

Even worse, do your Victorian female characters have modern names, such as Crystal, or worse yet names that were for men like Jamie and the like?  Are your women striding about with twenty-first century attitudes morals and freedoms?

Do remember that some things may in fact be correct but they might jar anyway. Traffic lights in Leningrad back in 1942? Well in truth they did exist but it has never felt right.

We invite you to add the Book Bloopers you have come across or dare we say, created?

Resources - get some online help:

( this is a series of ebooks focused on individual subjects)

Jane Furey


  1. Well, if you were to make it clear that your Regency family is German or part-German, it's okay. (Though that should have other social consequences than just the tree, and it might have to be particular regions of Germany.) Or you could make somebody have picked up the quaint custom while touring Europe, and eccentric enough to make the family bear with indoor lit candles on a flammable dry tree. (Although it probably would feel "popish" to the English, without the custom having been introduced by a Protestant prince.) But yeah, it's an important point to recall.

    There were traffic lights lots of places by the 1940's, though, and Leningrad was a city with cars as well as horse-drawn carts and sawdust bread. Possibly this is one of those "we fight to remember that people lived in color, even though we mostly see it in black and white footage" things.

    Apparently people who get upset over historical anachronisms have been christened "potato ragers". I am definitely one!

  2. One of my pet historical peeves is having someone who's forty years old in a medieval be thought of as an old man or woman. The infobit about how the average life expectancy in the Middle Ages was around thirty has circulated and unfortunately too many people interpret that to mean that 90% of the population was born, lived to age thirty, then dropped dead. The concept of an "average" seems beyond most folks.

    If one person died 88, and two died as infants, 88+1+1=90, 90/3=30, so that's a thirty year average lifespan. Infant mortality was tragically high in the Middle Ages, and for a long time after, and accounted for the oddly low average life expectancies we see for most historical times and places. I wish more novelists would understand that.


  3. Found in a recent novel... a character gives someone the Heimlich maneuver - in 1912. It was first proposed in 1974.

  4. When I read a book, historical inaccuracies jolt me out of the experience.

    I'm always amazed when Regency damsels and Victorian governesses defend their virtue with martial arts skills.

    Many historical authors seem to have limited research skills, especially regarding geography. I've read one historical novel in which the heroine misses the wild Cornish cliffs of her home in Scotland. Cornish cliffs in Scotland? Ahem.

  5. I've read very few Victorian novels in which the ladies weren't striding about with twenty-first century morals and freedoms. Modern readers don't take well to heroines who believe they're inherently inferior to men, treat poor people like trash, hate blacks, Asians, and especially Jews, and exist solely to produce children while, ironically, pretending to have zero sex drive.

    The problem is less often in technical inaccuracies as it is in what your readers will think are inaccuracies. Readers don't fuss about tomboy Regency heroines who ride around straddled on horseback and spout their mouths off about gender equality--or about heroes who think that's charming. But they will fuss if you mention telephones and automobiles in a novel set in the 1890s, because it doesn't fit their conception of the time period.

    I had a negative reaction once to a single sentence describing a carte de visite of a woman with a gentle close-lipped smile, because obviously, all 19th century photographs feature people scowling. Likewise, it's an indisputable fact that no gentlewoman in the Victorian era ever had premarital sex with her lover. Homosexuals didn't exist in the Western world until the 20th century. And everyone knows that the "original" Dracula burned up in sunlight, and this recent spate of glittering emo boys is revisionist.

    The point is, people don't care much for facts, only consistency with the established norms of the genre.

  6. That's a really good point you make about 'norms of the genre', Tamara. I've often had readers of my latest draft pull a face and tell me: 'what? Auditors existed in the sixteenth century?'. In fact, the 16th C. is particularly compelling to me, due to the misconceptions I had about it, since it is finally tucked in a period between the middle ages and modernity. In fact I think this is the reason why most authors steer clear of this period, for it is a hard challenge to understand exactly how things worked at that time. It is probably why most authors of fantasy base their worlds on the 'medieval' period, since it is seen as 'simpler' and more 'straightforward' than a world which is suddenly full of such tricky things as gunpowder, printing presses, navigation etc. These misconceptions / established norms of the genre are a large part of what drives me to write about the early modern period. Personally speaking, I think historical novelists should have the courage to break with some established norms, and I think that this can be pulled off successfully if one presents a compelling story. I think that good research will always shine through, and help an author to break these established norms, although a balance should also be struck if you want to be accessible to your audience / the general public.

  7. Tamara, I completely agree. If we wrote our heroines the way Dickens did, for example, our books would fly across the room after the first 20 pages. And cover designers had better not try to depict accurate hairstyles on the hero or heroine; Victorian hair looks very weird to modern tastes. (The same readers, including myself, will nitpick over the costumes, though, so getting at least the decade right is a must.)

  8. I write Regencies, and I check every piece of clothing, the politics, farming and words. However, many writers think that if readers don't complain, it doesn't matter. I belong to a well known Regency writers group, and I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, well she isn't historically correct and she's a best selling author making lots of money. It drives me mad. There is a way to write an historically accurate novel and have it be entertaining at the same time. I don't have that much of a problem if an author wants to make their heroine a bit unusual, but they need to explain why the heroine is that way.