Monday, July 29, 2013


WELCOME TO MY SECOND POST on the ABC's of How NOT to Write Speculative Fiction. Before I reveal what the next writing error under ‘A’ is, see if you can spot it in each of the examples below. Some examples have more than one type of the same error:
  • In a medieval setting, a young girl visits a country fair. She’s enthralled by the musicians, the jugglers, and the handsome knights. Meghan turned in a wide circle, taking it all in. Good wives hawked their meat pies, squires argued over the price of armour, while music from lyres and penny whistles cut the bright air.
  • The year is 2040. From a bunker, a young man recalls the terrorism that marked World War Three: Hideous scenes became our hourly entertainment on the grid. But after a while, we stopped grooving on all the dead bodies.
  • A renaissance artist is consigned to paint the portrait of a merchant’s shrewish wife: “But let me warn you, Enrico, she’s a ball-breaker.” Enrico sighed the sigh of a school teacher faced with a simpleton of a student.
Did you figure them out? Each of the above examples contains an anachronism. An anachronism occurs when something happens outside its proper time or place, or when a phrase or a piece of dialogue doesn’t reflect the setting. One example might be when present day language is used in a sword and sorcery story, or when the ‘thees and thous’ of medieval dialogue are used incorrectly to mimic the time. If an anachronism is employed, a writer must use it intentionally, giving the reader a plausible reason for it to happen (as in a time travel story).

In Example #1 above, the writer refers to lyres, yet describes a scene from the Middle Ages. The lyre is an instrument from classical Greece. It’s still possible for a lyre to show up in the Middle Ages, but with no explanation of why it’s there, it’s an anachronism.

In Example #2, slang from the ‘60’s – grooving – is used in 2040. Again, this is still possible if the writer has previously established that ‘60’s slang has been borrowed and is used, but this wasn’t the case.

In Example #3, the term ball-breaker doesn’t fit because it’s modern slang. There’s a second anachronism in school teacher. Public schools and school teachers weren’t established until a later period. Tutor might have been a better choice of a word. I also suspect the writer liked the alliteration of all the s’s – sigh, school teacher, faced, simpleton, and student—which is a nice touch and to be encouraged, but not in this case with school teacher.

How do you avoid anachronisms? Do your homework, especially if you’re writing historically-based SF. This means a lot of research. Because I write about Spain and the Caribbean in a parallel world, yet reflect our real one in the sixteenth century, my agent would often point out where I had slipped into modern usage, particularly in dialogue. This morning, I spent some time on the internet, trying to determine how fast a Spanish galleon might travel in 1550 between Cadiz (Qadis in my world) and the Canary Islands. One source told me only two days, while another suggested four. After more digging, I found out a galleon might travel as far as 192 nautical miles in a day, assuming the winds were good. With a little calculation, and taking into consideration latitudes and longitudes (there are approximately 700 nautical miles between Cadiz and Santa Cruz) I calculated 3.64 days. Allowing for reasonable sailing conditions, I changed my estimate to four days instead of the original two. Maybe I’m still not as accurate about that as I should be (if any of you seasoned sailors out there knows for sure, please let me know), but in the meantime, I’ll go with four days instead of two. That way, I avoid an anachronism of faster travel at sea than what was possible at that time. 

Next Post: When Words Collide, the panels I’m on and with whom, and the Calgary Launch of The Tattooed Witch. Yes, there will be cake! 

 Stay tuned!


  1. This is a very timely post! (No pun intended... but I'll own it.)
    I've been doing a lot of research as I write a series of short stories that are loosely linked but take place at widely separated times in history. Two were set in Lake Agassiz-era North America, and boy did I find plenty of conflicting sources on human settlement and megafauna extinction patterns. All to figure out whether my characters would be able to hunt mammoth or would even know what one was!
    In another, set in 1919 in Winnipeg, I realized I didn't know nearly enough about the General Strike, the city's geography, Great War veterans, influenza or tuberculosis. Yikes! But a lot of fun to research. I started to find that with every line of dialogue or setting description, I was saying something specific about the time and characters, and a little blunder like calling the Northwest Mounted Police the "R.C.M.P." would ruin it for anyone who knew better than I did.
    But it has been a great experience to try to get it right, right down to the slang, fashion, and cultural attitudes.

  2. Thanks for your comment, David. I think research is one of the great joys and frustrations of writing. I find I sometimes get to a point where I say to myself, "Geez, can't I just write? I'm wasting time looking stuff up!" (I spent an hour looking up sailing times, etc., only to finally change one word.) Still, it can be fascinating and it *is* necessary. Your stories sound great. I love historical SF. You've obviously put in your time. :-)

  3. Oy, an hour just for that one word! And yet, given the example, it was probably worth it (as it is for all these things). because the people who are likely to read such stories, apart from those who are trying something unfamiliar, may well be armchair experts in the field the author is trying to not screw up on. And once your reader loses faith in you over one detail you clearly got wrong, you've probably lost them for good.
    I admit I enjoy researching for its own sake, but not so much when the submission has a deadline and I'm trying to cover off all the things I plainly don't know and still get a good story out of it before sending it off. I always feel I'm missing too much.

  4. It may have been just that one word in that particular section of the book, but you're right - that information will affect how and what I write as I go along. As for deadlines? Definitely anxiety-provoking, but that's a whole other post.