They pop up in the most unexpected places — statements, images, or ideas that don’t belong in that time — anachronisms. Most often we see them in works of fiction, when the writer tosses in bits of background color that could not possibly be part of the background at the time of the story. A writer may need to take liberties with historical fact to suit a story’s purpose, of course, but no one wants to blunder into it.

Here are a couple of examples I’ve encountered in the past two weeks:

  • In Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ biblical novel,  Mark’s Story, they weave an enthralling account of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial until they note that Roman soldiers guarded Jesus’ tomb “around the clock.” Which clock would that be? A Chinese water clock, which the Romans knew nothing about? A sun dial? Maybe a Rolex that fell off some time traveler’s wrist?
  • In the 1993 film, “Shades of Fear,” a young girl from Grenada takes a steamer ship to England in hopes of getting an aviator’s license (no small feat in the 1920’s). The protagonist is engaged in a shipboard conversation with two missionary ladies that she has just identified as lesbians when…wait! In the background, the ship’s activity director is leading a group of passengers in daily calesthentics to a 1950’s rock-and-roll record. How did we jump 30 years into the future? Perhaps they had entered the Bermuda Triangle?

In each case, a simple fact error interrupts the story. The tiny thread suspending disbelief is snipped, and the reader’s imagination comes crashing to the floor.

Internet research tools make it a bit easier to avoid chronological faux pas. A friend’s story about a World War I suffragette mentioned that a newspaper reporter snapped a photo with a flash bulb, and I wondered whether that could be true. A quick Google search revealed that the photographer’s flash bulb was invented a decade later, so any flash photos during WWI required a pan of flash powder.

Word origins can be checked online, too. My friend sent me another manuscript, set in Victorian England, that contained a wealth of distinctive British terms so I was dipping into my online Merriam-Webster dictionary (www.m-w.com) to find out what they meant. In the process, I noticed that one term was the first documented in the 1940’s, a good century after the story occurred. (It’s a wonder that my friends ever show me their works in progress!)

By now, you may wonder where my own examples are. Have I ever put into a character’s hand a personal grooming device that would not be invented for another couple of decades? Have I ever gathered folks around a radio receiver to enjoy a well-known comedy show that did not begin broadcasting until the following year? That would shatter the illusion of verisimultude, wouldn’t it? And I respect you too much for that. Rest assured, my work has all the accuracy of Charles Lindbergh’s quartz chronometer.