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Beware of anachronisms and careful about literary license to preserve accuracy in your writing


In previous posts I’ve encouraged those of you who write fiction to remember your creative edge: If you don’t know something, you have the liberty of making it up. I also have mentioned the need for realism in fiction.

Which brings up two related matters: Beware of anachronisms and be very careful with literary license.

I just finished a nice thriller-adventure novel by David Baldacci, “Stone Cold.” I’ve read most of Baldacci’s novels. I consider his first two or three to be the best written, although this one comes close. (My favorite of his novels is probably “The Winner.”)

Near the beginning of the novel “Stone Cold,” Baldacci has a character walking down a street “into the Edsel deli, going strong since 1954, the sign over the door says, making it far more popular than the dismal car after which it was named.” Baldacci’s opinion of the Edsel aside, he’s got the timeline wrong. A small bit of Google research actually took me to a page devoted to the Edsel (which, by the way, was NOT that bad of a car), which tells me the first full-sized clay mockup of the Edsel was unveiled in August 1955, the car’s official name was announced in November 1956, and the first 14 “pre-production” cars were actually built in 1957. Full-scale production of the Edsel’s first model year — 1958 — began July 15, 1957.

You get my point here? Baldacci’s comment about the deli name was an anachronism — using an event, person, item, or name in a way it couldn’t have existed. There were no Edsels in 1954 to be used in the deli’s name.

But let’s suppose, since the novel deals with top-secret CIA stuff and international intrigue ranging between the days of the Cold War and the present, that Baldacci made reference elsewhere to some top secret drug treatment used by one of the villains, and we were to discover the drug in question hadn’t been invented until after the Cold War.

Would that be an anachronism or just “literary license,” i.e., the author’s right to make stuff up as he goes along. That would depend, of course, on how it was done. Since we’re dealing with supposedly top-secret CIA stuff, it would be very easy to use the drug treatment reference and simply explain it as something CIA knew and did before the public found out about it.

But that doesn’t exactly work with the naming of a deli in 1954 after a car not produced until 1957. My guess is this anachronism slipped into the manuscript simply through ignorance on Baldacci’s part and carelessness or ignorance by the editorial staff at the publishing house. (Don’t get me started on that. Mistakes happen, but many of those editorial people are getting paid really good money to catch those mistakes so they DON’T happen. My strictly unscientific opinion is that they are missing more stuff all the time at the editorial stage.)

I was intrigued by a page at the end of the novel. I won’t give away anything about it, but it’s a note by the author explaining his intentional use of literary license regarding part of the novel’s timeline as it relates to “real” history. Hooray for Mr. Baldacci on that one.

So be careful when you’re creating your characters, plots, and the physical settings of your novels. It’s especially easy to get caught up in a good story and miss such anachronisms as Baldacci’s Edsel deli. Unfortunately, if the editors miss ’em too, that only leaves us grumpy curmudgeons as your last line of defense.
[tags]anachronisms, literary license, accuracy in writing, writing tips at garyspeer.com[/tags]

2 Responses to “Beware of anachronisms and careful about literary license to preserve accuracy in your writing”

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Aaron Wakling

  2. Tip Diva says:

    I’ve noticed that in quite a few books myself, especially ones taking place in New York City. And, of course, there are always movies… one of my favorite pages on IMDB is the “goofs” page, which covers alot of anachonisms!