Realistic vs Believable Historicity

The first photograph – “View from the Window” – by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1825

Which of these names doesn’t belong in a historical fiction or pseudo-medieval fantasy novel: Persephone, Elizabeth, Constance, Tiffany, Cassandra, Wynefrede? Most readers will call out “Tiffany” as the sore thumb – it just doesn’t sound right. However, they all belong. The name “Tiffany” has been documented as early as the 12th century. This specific tension – the conflict between actual historical facts and popular instincts about those facts – has a name: The Tiffany Problem.

Coined by Fantasy Author Jo Walton, The Tiffany Problem is well-documented. It seems to have had a moment recently, circling the blog-o-sphere in 2019/2020. If you want to check the facts, you can read more over on Medium, MamaMia, or The Literary Mercenary. I don’t want to waste your time, reader, re-treading familiar paths others have broken so well. Rather, I want to break down specific examples from my pseudo-historical fantasy manuscript in progress.

Setting a Date

I knew I didn’t want my story to take place in the typical faux-medieval-Europe setting common to most fantasy novels. I wanted to explore the intersection of monsters and magic with city life in an industrialized world… but I didn’t want to create just another modern urban fantasy, where technology would overshadow the need for magic and skill-at-arms. So, I researched the Industrial Revolution, focusing on a handful of iconic tech trees:

Transportation – The first steam-powered car was invented in the late 1760’s. You read that right – the great-grandfathers of the modern car are older than America. The first combustion engine hit the streets in 1803, but improvements and prototypes continued to come out throughout the 19th century, with a boom in the 1870’s – 1880s.

Electricity – The earliest batteries were discovered around 1800. From there, scientists increased their understanding of electricity and magnetism through the 1820’s. It took a few decades for inventors to apply these principles practically, but by the 1870’s we had telegraphs, early telephones, and the light bulb. 1891 marked the first motion picture, and radios followed by the early 1900s.

Photo by Luca Nardone on

Photography – The first still image was captured in 1825. From there, photographers stepped through several iterations of “wet” photography involving glass or metal sheets and chemical baths from copper daguerreotypes to glass ambrotypes to tintypes. So-called modern “dry” photography came about in the 1870’s. I was surprised to learn that the modern film roll was invented only 10 years later, around 1880, but it took another 60 years for this technology to become cheap enough for non-professionals to use.

Firearms – Is it any surprise that humans invented more ingenious ways to kill one another much earlier than the marvelous improvements above? Breech-loading firearms have been around since the 1300s, with the Ottoman Empire taking the prize as the first army to issue them widely to their infantry in the 1400s. From, there, it became just a matter of efficiency. Manual multi-shot models such as pepperboxes came around in the early 1800s. The colt revolver was invented in 1836, and the lever-action rifle followed the next year. These new weapons were expensive, and did not fully replace single-shot firearms until the mid-1860s. No prizes will be awarded for guessing which American conflict drove that technological leap.

Given that research, I settled on a tech level analogous to 1860 for my setting. That cuts off significant telecommunication, but allowed for early photography, automobiles, and novelty electrical gimmicks. Trains, and factories, in particular, were essential to the plot. For my hero’s weaponry, this year allows for the possibility of rare repeating guns without requiring them.

What Did Readers Flag?

My Beta-readers called out a few terms that tripped them up: namely, “acid”, “truck”, and “photograph”. These words jarred them from the story. At that moment, whether I can prove that those things “should” be in the text or not doesn’t matter. I want the reader to sink into the story, immersing in the flow. Jumping out to think about whether trucks exists is antithetical to that.

What Did I Change?

Thanks, surprisingly appropriate stock art! (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Acid – First, I laid the groundwork for this invention – I showed it being used in a scene earlier than my original first inclusion. Second, I got more technical with it, shifting the name to “lye extract concentrate.” This nonsense chemistry-jargon was more acceptable to readers than “acid,” which goes to show that in fiction, sometimes believability and accuracy are two different things.

Photograph – Another jarring word. Although it is reasonable that the generic term for all overlapping subtypes of photography existed around my target year, readers believed “daguerreotype” more readily.

Truck – The amusing thing, to me, at least, is that the “truck” problem was not my first reference to automobiles. I described several “horseless carriages” and “motorized carts,” and nobody seemed to notice or care. So, I broke the term out. The “truck” became a “long, flat-bedded motorized cart, build for hauling…”. Funny how sometimes, more is more.

What did I Not Change?

There were some general questions about firearms from beta readers; more curiosity than any real flag. I choose to stick with an emphasis on black powder, single-shot weapons because it supports the style and tone I want to get across. Limiting this tech tree makes the monsters more dangerous and the expertise of my heroes more valuable.

Lastly, I got a general feedback that if I wanted tech, I should consider making it “more steampunk.” I reject that as a false dichotomy. Steampunk, like Boneshaker, is sci-fi with a twist, and comes with its own genre conventions and expectations. It would take a major re-write to do it justice, and that is a direction I was not interested in taking. The converse – slapping some gears and pistons around the world and calling it “steampunk” – would be cheap and tawdry. So, I left it as-is.

The Tiffany Attitude

My conclusion for you is simple, reader. When faced with The Tiffany Problem in your work, decide what is important and why. If the anachronistic element matters to your story, leave it in. You may have to do some work in the text to prime the reader to accept it, but that’s ok. If the detail is not important – don’t sweat it. Remove or rename. Immersion is more important than being right.

As always, thanks for reading, and happy writing.


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