I’m wondering how people feel about anachronisms in historical fiction. Last week I came across a startling instance in a new paperback reprint of a well-received historical-type fantasy (perceived level of tech maybe 2nd or 3rd century CE). This is from a very respectable publisher, lots of critical attention, etc. Yet I hurled it across the room after reading for three minutes. Why? Because on page 5 a character feels a “thrill of electricity.” Electricity. In the 2nd century. In a fit of pique, I tossed it in the recycling.* And then tonight, rereading one of my all-time favourites, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, I found a fish “jackknifing.” It bothered me. Not enough to throw the book, but enough to pop me out of the story for a moment.
I’m working really hard while writing this novel about Hild to be rigorous with the language, probably to an excessive degree. For example, in one dreamy, other-wordly passage I wanted to talk about aconite, the poisonous purplish blue flower–but that name wasn’t around until the Normans. Okay, I thought, I’ll call it Monkshood. But, no, that makes no sense in a society with no monks (we’re in Northumbria, pre-Paulinus, pre-Aidan; no doubt there were some Brittonic-speaking priests skulking about but I can’t quite imagine monks). So, okay, how about Wolf’s Bane? Good–except apparently that usage wasn’t known until the tenth century. If I’ve done my research properly (and, as always, I welcome corrections), the Old English term for aconite was probably thung (þung), a generic term for poisonous plants. But, really, thung? Tuh. It’s not poetic at all. So I compromised and called it ‘the thung that people call Wolf’s Bane’–and one minute later deleted it. I can’t bear that level of clumsiness in fiction. So, despite all my efforts, the flower is now Wolf’s Bane and I just hope all the botanists and medievalists will not fling the book at the wall.
And I haven’t even begun to work out how to deal with the place name problem….
So, your thoughts? Will anyone even notice my (attempted) rigour? Am I being too fussy?
* Yes, I know, I should have recycled it via a loving home, or the library, or something, but it was a freebie (publishers send me a lot of stuff), and I suspect they sent out so many, and it’s such rubbish, that soon all potential loving homes will be inundated.