Historical Fiction authors have all experienced it…blissfully writing away, unaware that we have just committed an anachronism. And chances are, we won’t even know until a reviewer calls it to the world’s attention—months, or even years later. Oh no!
I hate to admit it, but outside of my knowledge of historical events, I don’t know everything about everything historical. Trust me: it’s a tall order (according to the OED, earliest use of this phrase was 1893). Not every animal or plant was native to England (or America!). Sometimes they were introduced later than the period we are writing about. One time a reader penalized me for having Canute the Dane eat a rabbit because he said they were brought over with the Normans. D’oh! I looked it up and discovered a Roman recipe (in England) for rabbit, so they must have brought over the little buggers. That doesn’t excuse me, unfortunately. It never occurred to me to look up the origin of rabbits in England.
One little slip like giving King Alfred a tomato can wreak havoc with an author’s credibility. Potatoes are another bone of contention, as are turkeys, sugar, and chocolate, to name a few. Such foods may have existed but may not have made their way to England until late in the period. Not everyone agrees on the timing.
So where is the fine line between innocent errors and unforgiveable lapses? Laurence Olivier had Henry V in armor hoisted onto his horse with a crane-like contraption. He was warned against this inaccuracy by his historical advisor but preferred the dramatic effect. This gaffe is imprinted on our cultural memory!
What about language? Idioms are another trap for the unwary. When I am writing, I run etymonline.com in the background, as well as phrases.org.uk. There are certain words and phrases that wouldn’t have been used in the early days. You can’t explode before the use of gunpowder. Can you really be nervous before the discovery of nerves? Of course, etymology is only a guide; the first known use of a word would be in writing. But I doubt if it would be in general use verbally for more than a century or two previously. So if a word was first discovered in 1650, for example, I would hesitate to use it in 1400. The trick is being cognizant of an anachronistic word in the first place.
Bottom line? The writer is going to make mistakes. We can’t forgive ourselves, but maybe our readers will cut us some slack (first use mid-1900s).