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3 Sneaky Historical Fiction Pitfalls to Watch Out for

February 1, 2021

Although every genre has its own challenges, many writers shy away from setting their stories in the past because of the extensive research involved. Dozens of details need to be factual, including linguistics. Why are some historical novels so immersive? Because the authors understood how to translate their research into dialogue, narration, and action that convey the bygone era in its full splendor, without resorting to anachronisms that yank readers out of the story.

 

Oxford Languages defines an anachronism as “a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.” But I’ve found that the most common anachronisms in recent historical fiction are actually new-fangled, belonging to the year in which they were written. Three of these mistakes are especially easy to stumble into but may not seem like a big deal—until readers notice, and I guarantee that avid fans of the genre will.

 

1. Familial Titles and Terms of Endearment

Let’s say you’re drafting a story that takes place in twentieth century London. You know who the queen is, you’ve figured out the differences between a duke and a count, and you’ve memorized the circumstances under which a woman can inherit property. But as you write a scene where the protagonist interacts with her mother, you realize you have no clue what the woman is supposed to be called. Mom? Mother? Mum? Lady of the House? What about the protagonist’s father? And what nicknames can she give her sister?

 

This is a problem I’ve often encountered in my own manuscripts, as well as while beta reading. It’s a tricky nuance, because you probably won’t think about it until one character needs to address another, and familial titles vary wildly between time periods, cultures, and classes. Not only that, but some families don’t subscribe to the general rules at all. On the plus side, inventive names will make your characters unforgettable. Remember Marmee? Most daughters weren’t calling their mothers that in the 1800s, but it’s one of the factors that contributes to Louisa May Alcott’s legacy.

 

What to research: Read memoirs or journal entries from a variety of sources in your chosen time period, ensuring that the writers were of a similar class and culture to your characters. Because you’re dealing with personal names, a personal touch increases authenticity. (But if you can’t find any definitive answers, “Mother” and “Father” are safe in most contexts.)

 

2. Modern Attitudes

I’m begging you: do not write another Victorian female protagonist who hates wearing a corset and updos. Both of those trends may seem uncomfortable to you, but the average woman of that era would have been accustomed to them, so I doubt she would constantly complain about feeling restricted.

 

Every era has had progressives who wanted to reform social structure, fashion, literature, and anything else that others would listen to them critique. These characters are entertaining and valuable, but a person who is forward-thinking for her time will not sound like you and your friends chatting about outdated ideas over lunch. Naturally, parallels between the past and present do exist—that’s what makes historical fiction interesting. But the magic is in the specific combination of similarities and differences, not forcing a character’s inner voice to reflect today’s perspective on an issue.

 

What to research: If possible, read both fiction and nonfiction that was contemporary to the time period you’re studying. What kinds of changes did the progressives push for, and how did they express their beliefs? How did traditionalists view the same topics? And how would the average person have reacted to the situations your characters are facing? Try to put yourself in their shoes without getting caught up in what your own experience might have been if you’d lived back then.

 

3. Too Much Grit (or Not Enough)

At some point in time, novelists decided that Medieval folks were unwashed and uneducated, that the Dark Ages reigned supreme from roughly 1100–1300, and that the Renaissance suddenly chased away all the violence, ignorance, and filth (and provided peasants with bathtubs). Likewise, everyone in the Regency era must have had impeccable manners (unless they were cads!) and the Victorians were, quite frankly, prudes.

 

With all our modern conveniences and wealth of knowledge, we have a tendency to broad-brush the past as dismal. Or we romanticize it, because growing up in a manor with a ballroom (and no technological trappings) would supposedly be bliss. People gravitate to the aesthetics they think they’d enjoy inhabiting, which is fine for historical romance or something along those lines, but it reduces the impact of stories that are meant to be hard-hitting.

 

No single era was fully good or bad, dirty or clean. In times of sadness, people laughed. In times of joy, they mourned. Balance the two as accurately as possible so you’re not just writing a historical story—you’re writing a human one. And, on basic levels, humans never change.

 

What to research: Before you begin, list the assumptions you have about the era you’re tackling. Then try to prove each one wrong, or at least dig up an exception. Traverse the glory and the shame with a historian’s eye, not letting your feelings distract you. After you’re thoroughly informed, you can determine how you’ll incorporate those elements into your story.

 

The Genre Is Called Historical Fiction for a Reason

In closing, I need to add a small caveat to these tips: as with all fiction projects, rules should be applied creatively (if not entirely broken). Historical fiction mixed with other genres, such as sci-fi or fantasy, has its own tropes. And modern anachronisms that have been purposefully employed can make a statement. For example, in the film Marie Antoinette, producer Sophia Coppola set blue converse shoes amongst the eighteenth century attire and inserted a punk rock soundtrack. Sure, a few people objected, but in general the audience agreed that it was cool.

 

Above all, remember that you’re crafting historical fiction. You haven’t seen the past firsthand (unless you own a secret time machine, in which case, please share it). Nobody’s expecting you to nail every detail, and creative license is valid. But being aware of little inconsistencies that can degrade an otherwise-excellent piece goes a long way.

6 Comments

  1. Bella D.

    Thank you, Quinlyn! As a historical fiction writer myself, I took away several tips from your article and agreed 100% with each point.

    Reply
  2. Rachel L.

    Really appreciate this! I feel like it’s tough to find resources for historical fiction sometimes. This is very helpful and I will be watching for those sneaky mistakes in my own writing.

    Reply
  3. Sarah W

    Thank you! Great article; I really enjoyed it!

    Reply
  4. Grace T

    Number 2. Just . . . yes. That gets on my nerves so much xDD And number 3 is a really important reminder as well. Great article!

    Along these lines, this might be kind of a long shot, but do you have any tips for researching period-accurate fashion? I’ve avoided historical fiction for ages but my newest idea is a sort of historical fantasy with influences from the late 1920s and 30s in particularly the UK (e.g. both All Creatures Great and Small tv shows), and it’s hard to find everyday clothing resources from the 20th century that aren’t narrow categories like flappers, Depression-era flour- sack dresses, or silver-screen fancy dress xD

    Reply
    • Allie R.

      Hey! I’m not sure if you’ve tried this already, but searching specifics can be helpful. There’s probably a name for the ’20s-’30s period in the UK. Or, you could look for an article that lists the different fashions throughout the century. I’m sure you’ll be able to find more information. Hopefully this helped!

  5. Kirsten F.

    A wonderful article! I am glad to see there are other people out there who want to do their best to write powerful and deep historical fiction. Thank you so much for writing this.

    Reply

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