Yet more adventures in anachronistic phrases

This subject keeps cropping up for me: the problem of avoiding anachronistic phrases in historical novels. Here are two more.

I can't have my characters describe something as sandwiched between two other things. Lord Sandwich is yet to make his contribution to the culinary arts.

Nor can a character look daggers at someone else. It comes, slightly mangled, from Hamlet, where Hamlet promises to speak daggers.


Carrie Clevenger said...

So how DO you avoid those? My shortcut is writing my historical characters now, but when I do write a fully historical piece, is there a place to research these sort of things at all?

Gary Corby said...

70% or more of idiomatic phrases come from Shakespeare and the Bible. An amazing statistic when you think about it. So if you can avoid those then you're pretty much okay.

The basic rule of thumb is you have to stop every single time you use a stock phrase and ask yourself where it came from. You'll be an expert after the first 300 pages or so.

Of course this varies wildly with the period you're writing. A mediaeval monk who does not quote the Bible is out of character, but I'd be concerned if the same monk said, "Elementary, my dear Watson."

In my case about the only place legit quotes can come from is Homer, so practically everything is out of bounds. This is actually a good thing. It forces me to never use cliches. Rather funnily though, in the beta of my current book I deliberately had my hero refer to the rosy fingered dawn, because it's one of the few stock phrases still current that I can safely use. A beta reader (correctly) complained that it's a cliche!

Anonymous said...

I never would have thought of the sandwich thing! As far as the daggers go, you can't know that Shakespeare is the first person ever to use that phrase, he's just the guy who immortalized it. Oh, there are so many reasons why I'm not and never will be writing historical fiction.

irenesbooks said...

Nor did Trajan build a "shopping mall," another inanity I came across recently, sadly copied, it seems, from

Tana said...

Great post! I'm glad I found your blog, through Rachelle's.