How to Avoid Anachronisms
- Write about periods you know very well. If you’re writing about a particular place and time, it’s essential to know that context very well. If you haven’t done your research, you are bound to have some anachronisms in your writing.
- Avoid slang. Slang terms are very time-specific – so much so that modern slang is distinctly different from the slang in use even just 10 or 20 years ago. If you want your characters to use slang terms, do a little research into the kinds of terms that were in use at the time.
- When in doubt, go early. This is a pretty simple rule for technology. If the technology in your story is too primitive for the time period, that’s a slight anachronism but not a terrible one. For example, having characters ride a steam train in 1950 would be unlikely, but not impossible. On the other hand, having a diesel train in 1865 would be impossible. Think of it this way: an overly advanced technology simply wouldn’t exist, but an overly primitive technology might just be a holdover. After all, maybe your characters just live in a place where the more advanced technology hasn’t arrived yet!
- Go easy on yourself. Good writers are very careful to avoid anachronisms, since they know that such inaccuracies are irritating for readers. However, no writer is perfect, and anyway our knowledge of the past is spotty in many ways. You don’t have to fact-check every single detail of your story – just make sure that it is generally accurate and that the important events are within the realm of historical possibility.
When to Avoid Anachronism
Avoid anachronisms when working on a historical piece, whether it is fiction or non-fiction. If it is fiction, accurate details about the setting and time will help the piece seem more realistic than if you include anachronisms. Not to mention that information should always be fact-based in non-fiction. Whether you write news articles, essays, or narratives avoiding anachronisms will also keep the timelines clear and therefore avoid confusion.
When is it OK to Use Anachronism?
Sometimes, authors deliberately include anachronisms for comic or fanciful effect. In Calvin & Hobbes, for example, Calvin combines his dinosaur toys with his toy jet fighters and plays a game in which tyrannosaurs hunt Triceratopses from F-14s. Given that there were no F-14s in the late Cretaceous period, this is a comedic anachronism.
There are also various genres of literature that use anachronisms as a deliberate trope. For example, steam punk is a whole genre based on an alternate history in which extremely advanced technologies are possible in the late-Victorian era. Thus, steam-powered trains will exist alongside steam-powered mechanical computers and advanced airships equipped with steam-powered missiles. This genre achieves its distinctive aesthetic by deliberately screwing around with the facts of history and technology.