Avoid anachronisms in stories set in past

One of the problems of living in our era of fast-paced technological change is that we don’t have a good sense of when such products that are such a common part of our lives today actually existed. Should a writer not do the proper research and so include a device common today in time period in which it did not exist, that object is an anachronism.

While typically a modern day object placed in the past – such as a desktop computer in the 1960s – a number of different anachronisms can appear in one’s writing. Among them are:
• References to places that didn’t exist at time of the story (Ex: Using the USSR in a story set in 1916)
• Juxtapositions of people who could not have met (Ex.: Julius Caesar and Jesus could not have met as they lived close to a half-century apart.)
• Affiliations and organizations from a later time (Ex: Using the United Nations in a story set in 1939)
• Indirect evidence of technologies that did not exist at time of story (Ex: Radiation from an atomic blast in a story set before 1945)
• Misplaced breeds of domesticated animals (Ex: A golden retriever during Roman times, as the dog was bred only after guns were invented).

There are a number of good reasons to avoid these incongruities. The first is to maintain believability, as they break the verisimilitude of a story. While some readers may not notice the mistake, enough will, and at least one or two of them will point out to the rest of the world that you got it wrong. Secondly, as an author, you should strive to be historically accurate. In the past, sometimes anachronisms were used in stories to make a point; today, however, historical realism generally is preferred.

One anachronism you probably won’t be able to avoid is language anachronism. English speakers of the past used a different vocabulary, different expressions and slightly different grammar than English speakers of today, after all. Most readers are willing to forgive this type of anachronism as rewriting the piece so it’s in the language of that day would make it difficult to read (Just give Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” a try if you have any doubts.)