I posted this a few days ago on the SFF World forums, where I hang out these days.

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." So said L.P. Hartley in the opening of The Go-Between.

And rightly so. I'm a lifelong reader of historical fiction and now an author of a historical novel, for which I'm seeking an agent because it's not the kind of book I can easily sell on my own. It's set in coastal Ecuador in the mid-fifteen hundreds, and that is definitely a foreign country from the ones I've known. So I immersed myself in studying the period, to get the details right -- not only of technology and apparel, but of social mores and attitudes.

Even so, I fell into traps. Writing about the captain of a sixteenth-century galleon worrying about a storm that might cast him onto a lee shore, I automatically had him put a telescope to his eye. It was only on writing a subsequent draft that I thought, "Wait a minute, did they have telescopes in the sixteenth century?" Well, no, they didn't. Early seventeenth.

Nor did they have muskets. The soldiers had harquebuses, where the powder in the pan was ignited when it was touched by a piece of smoldering rope. Hispanic gentlemen had rapiers, but they had only recently replaced heavier swords.

I made a fetish of getting the details right because that's what the knowledgeable reader of historical fiction is entitled to. I know, because I'm one of those finicky readers who will put a book down if it offers historical nonsense. Like the time-travel book by the late Kage Baker that had a character who was described as a former "Sergeant-at-Arms" who had fought at Waterloo, and another who referred to a steward on a Victorian-era train as a "gentleman." Or the Roman centurion in a Jack Whyte novel who told his men they would defeat the Celts because the enemy fought as individuals whereas Romans fought as a machine.

Yesterday, I started a novel called Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard, which purported to be a first-person account of her life and times by the Bard's illegitimate daughter. I didn't get ten pages into it before I had to set it aside. First, it was written in the diction of a twentieth-century person, not someone who had lived through the time of the Stuarts and the English Civil War, when "thees" and "thous" abounded. I was willing to forgive that until I came to the mention of the lowly servant girl enjoying a cup of tea in the kitchen with the cook.

This was supposedly in the late 1650s, when tea first began to arrive in England from China. It was purely a luxury item, selling for up to ten pounds sterling for a pound. To give you an idea of how much money that was, ten pounds sterling was what Shakespeare's grammar school teacher would have earned in a year.

Tea caddies were fitted with strong locks, to which only the mistress of the household had the key. Any cook or serving girl who made herself a pot of it would have been instantly dismissed, and she'd be lucky not to be hauled before the magistrates and sentenced to flogging and/or branding.

The thing that got me was that this was not some bodice-ripper romance. The author, Richard B. Wright, has won the $50,000 Giller prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Governor-General's Award. He is considered a leading light of the Canadian literary scene. Reviews for the Shakespeare novel have been glowing and rich in effulgent praise. No one seems to have mentioned the anachronisms.

Oh, well. End of rant.