Saturday, April 7, 2012
Anachronisms -- Check Your Calendar!
"The time is out of joint," Hamlet said, which makes for a memorable line in Shakespeare but memorable errors in fiction-writing.
(One struck me in a recent Bible-based novel by a famous duo of Christian novelists, published by one of the leading houses. They solemnly described the scene at Jesus' tomb, where Roman guards were posted "around the clock." Really? More than a millennium before clocks were invented? That line jarred my imagination.)
These anachronisms (contradictions of time) slip in all too easily, so I've learned to rely on a few web sites to check my novel's calendar.
Let's start with the calendar itself. I usually start a project by printing out a calendar for the year(s) in question and putting it in a looseleaf notebook. That allows me to confirm the day of the week any date falls on, or any holiday. Professor Dick Henry of Johns Hopkins University has an ingenious website that allows you to print out calendars for any year (or any month), Julian or Gregorian, BC or AD. (http://henry.pha.jhu.edu/calendarDir/julianDir/julian.html) It also allows you to download a PDF version of the calendar you choose, which gives you the phases of the moon for each day. (Handy if you're planning a murder on a moonless night.)
Birth dates, death dates, and key milestones in a famous person's life can usually be found on Wikipedia (http://www.wikipedia.com/). A copyeditor friend used to disparage Wiki because it's compiled and maintained by volunteers, but he's stopped complaining. Their biographical articles are usually quite reliable.
If you're using an unusual word or phrase, it's a good idea to check when lexicographers first noted its appearance. Merriam-Webster's free onlline dictionary (http://www.m-w.com/) is my favorite source for this. The entries for most words tell you when they first appeared in print. (The same site has a good thesaurus, too.)
Is your protagonist going to a movie? Better check the date that particular movie was released at the Internet Movie Digital Database (http://www.imdb.com). For popular music back to the early 20th century, try http://www.discogs.com
There are lots more, of course. What are some of your favorite web sites for checking the accuracy of dates in your stories?