When my book’s co-protagonist, Brother Arcadius, started forming in my mind, he came attached to a major anachronism: his family’s brick-making business. Neither bricks nor businesses would have been part of the scene in AD 898 in Dublin, Arcadius’s home base. The few buildings in that little settlement would have been made of timber, and the Viking marauders who’d taken over the place would have had no need for “business.” Needed goods would have been produced by slaves, not entrepreneurs. I knew that. Yet when I tried to detach Arcadius from that brick-making family of his, he dissolved. In a struggle between accuracy and the book, I chose the book.
On the other hand, I wasn’t going to let Arcadius ride motorcycles, carry an iPhone, or subscribe to magazines. I very much wanted to give a generally truthful impression of his time. So, for instance, none of my characters ever use the word “minute.” “Minute” seems too hard-edged and precise for an age of hourglasses and water-clocks. They say “moment” instead. And Brother Arcadius, who isn’t stupid, proves to himself by logic that the earth has to be flat. And with two exceptions, everybody in the book takes it for granted that the sun circles the earth, and that Jupiter is the outermost planet.
I must say that I was proud of these and other little Medieval touches, and combed the text perhaps a thousand times to make sure that words like “minute” had not crept in. I had the generous help of eagle-eyed others who searched for me too. Imagine, then, how I felt when The Adventures had been out as a paperback for months, and people and even some libraries had bought it, to have the word “Pluto” leap out at me from a paragraph I almost knew by heart. Pluto! Not many people will know much about Dublin in AD 898, but just about all of us know that the farther planets weren’t discovered until telescopes were invented, centuries after Arcadius’s time. And while Pluto may or may not be a planet (I’ve lost track of its status), it is beyond all doubt Very Far Out.
At this point, readers may be getting ready to tell me that this confession itself is loaded with inaccuracies, and they’ll probably be right. And some may say that writers of history ought to get their facts straight. And some might say that with stories it doesn’t matter. But what I hope they’ll just say is simply, “She meant to say ‘Mars.’”