I’m always on the lookout for anachronisms—those pesky details that don’t belong to a specific time period. Etymological mistakes are frequent culprits. For example, in an early version of my current manuscript, my 1890s protagonist observed that she was in a vulnerable situation which made her, in essence, a “sitting duck.” The problem? The idiom “sitting duck” wasn’t coined until World War II. It wouldn’t occur to a young woman from the Victorian era to use such a phrase to describe the situation she’s in. In fact if a person from the future told her she was a “sitting duck,” she would have no idea what he meant.
Another smelly mistake almost happened when a particular scent became an important part of my plot. Hopefully, most readers would never spot the error, but the perfectionist within me cringed when a little extra research showed me where I went wrong.
In an early chapter, I needed my protagonist to smell like a character she’d been tasked with impersonating. It was easy enough to find a perfume that was in vogue in the 1890s (in fact, the one I chose remained popular enough that the company still produces and sells it today), but I made a major mistake in how I described its fragrance.
Part of the problem is the base note. Part of it is your particular body chemistry. Of course, none of this information will make it into the final draft because if it does I’ll have made yet another mistake. (Anyone ever read the cetology chapter in Moby Dick?) It will, however, inform my decisions about how I describe the perfume’s aroma in key scenes that come later in the story.
Research! It makes novels more authentic and believable, and it can even lead to exciting new plot ideas! The key to making it your ally is to get your facts from legitimate sources and then pursue the new questions the “answers” evoke to see where they take you.