February 2018 . . . .

“Magnificent Anachronism”

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when it comes to finding anachronism akin to literary/historical fingernails on a chalkboard. But I do suspect that we’re a small club, not particularly chatty and all behind on our dues. This is probably because we’re all tired of being called know-it-alls, or being asked if we tried out to be on “Jeopardy.” I know I am. OK, it has happened twice, and the first time it was because I was shouting the answers at the TV without putting them in the form of a question.

Which I hate. Not being told to put it in the form of a question, but that we all still think that this is a necessary part of the game. Because it’s been around a while (the game) and we all get it (those of us who watch it) and it’s a silly rule and time to kill it off. Come on — Major League Baseball actually ended the intentional walk, for crying out loud. What is “if baseball can do it, you can, Alex?”

Anachronisms aren’t even fun to write about. I can list some that crossed my radar, first researched by Heinrich Hertz in the 1880s. By the way, “Hertz” is the term for the measurement of radio wave frequency, and a Hertz is defined as one cycle per second. Interesting, right? However, it was Robert Watson-Watt who put radar to use detecting the distance of incoming airplanes (in 1915!) so that it was his developments that led to the equipment used in the Battle of Britain in 1940. But it wasn’t called radar. It was called Radio Direction Finding. Radar is an acronym for RAdio Direction And Ranging — coined by the US Navy. In 1940. In the US. Hmmm.

I know, I know — who cares? We who read historical fiction care. All seventeen of us.

To understand how we feel, think about making a recipe from a cookbook, and discovering that the author mislabeled tablespoons “Tsps.” After you’ve put the cake in the oven. Or someone singing your favorite Chance the Rapper song and screwing up the lyrics. Because they cannot screw up the tune. Because there isn’t one. Yeah. (Yeah, yeah . . . you know you should be glad.)

Or imagine going somewhere you’ve never been before and only having a map with no street names, or the wrong ones, or someone reading them out to you incorrectly. Yes, it’s Peachtree Street. I mean Peachtree Court. I mean Peach Orchard Court. (Yeah, talk about ancient history. Maps!) Well, perhaps your GPS is telling you to go down a side street because it’s shorter, even though that takes you off the highway and doesn’t really show how many speed bumps there are (one at each intersection and one each around every curve. Those damned teenagers with their hot-rods!

So when I read (present or past tense — it doesn’t matter, really) a book about George Patton taking Dramamine for his motion sickness, well, it’s . . . irritating. Because I know that the medication that eventually became Dramamine was invented in the early 20th century as an antihistamine, and only later when it was found to have motion sickness remediation qualities was it available as an over-the-counter pill.

In 1949. After Patton was dead.

Yes, I suppose this sort of thing happens all the time — in film and on TV. The wrong guitar being played in 1955. A wristwatch on an Earl in some-Abbey-or-other. Incorrect styles for the time periods. Question: does the complete disregard of actors in the 1960s for having proper haircuts in their roles as soldiers and sailors during World War II, Roman centurions, Elizabethan courtiers, or pre-historical cavemen bother you? It does me. But I tell myself that it is just film, and anyhow they seem to be getting it right nowadays. All of the haircuts from galaxies some number of longs ago and multiple fars away seem appropriate for their gender, class, age, and/or species. Bravo. Keep up the fair-to-middling work.

But more is expected from authors of historical fiction. It is, after all, a great portion of the point. Historical fiction is constructed on pertinent details. James Michener’s epic “Centennial” — a lush tale of the many states (and State) of Colorado — lavishly spent three pages explaining how a young British Royal saved the American beaver from extinction one windy London day. It seems that an errant gust toppled a favorite beaver skin topper into the street, scuffing it beyond repair, which emboldened him to try one of the newfangled silk models (available in colors to match the most fickle tastes!). The Brit bought the hat, and all of the style-followers and sycophants followed suit. Or, rather, hat. Suddenly, no more beaver pelts, please, we’re British. The big, buck-toothed rodents sighed with relief. And we readers adored the anecdotal connection between history and the narrative. Which is the whole point of that genre, and writing in it.

Enough preaching. If I was speaking to them here and now, and they were even remotely giving me the time of day, I would tell authors of historical fiction (or the strange stepchild sub-genre of steampunk speculative fiction) that they should be doing every bit of homework necessary to ensure that what may appear to be but the slightest of details is not a stumbling block for the readers of their opus.

All seventeen of us.