Simile in historical fiction

Can you use a present day simile in historical fiction where the item didn’t exist?

For example, if it’s a Western taking place in the 1880s before airplanes and parachutes were in existence, can you compare a petticoat to a parachute? (3rd-limited, Pete POV character)

“In a drunken haze, Pete clawed and fought at the petticoat entombing him like a soldier whose parachute floated over him after landing in a field with the enemy nearby.”

Personally, I wouldn’t do this. It’s odd and out of character, sometimes out-of-worldbuilding (eg, “The dragon’s tail hit me like a truck” when trucks or even cars don’t even exist). But then, that’s just me, and I’m not entirely sure what the rules on this are.

I wouldn’t do it, because I feel like it breaks the pov. How can your character compare it to something they don’t even know?

Unless you have an omniscient narrator, who knows this is historical fiction but comments on it from a present standpoint.

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Hmmm… Time travelling character, yes. All in one era? No. If your narrator is retelling an old story from a point of view that is not embedded in the era? Maybe but it might get confusing for the reader.

The fun thing you could do is look up etymology of simile. There are LOADS of great simile, metaphor and such from Victorian and Georgian times that could be used, and even as far back as Roman era people used quips and comparison in language! Personally, this could be a lot of fun to research different, popular sayings and work them into the book in your given era, and would lend credence to the time period on the book! Chaucer, Shakespeare… Oooh the list is endless.

Have fun with it!

Thanks. That was my gut feel too. It takes the reader out of the time period.

Try (death) shroud? It’s time appropriate

I personally wouldn’t do this. When I’m writing historical fiction, my similes will use past or present items.

Sometimes I’ll compare X item with something in nature that I know is present in the time period and country.

I was going for him frantically untangling himself from it in his drunken state. It is a humorous scene.

is… that not… hu… no I suppose not. a collapsed tent?

How is this for example in fantasy, when one wants to write things like train of thoughts and the fantasy creatures do not have trains? Theoretically they cannot use the word, although maybe the narrator could, but only if it’s not a deep POV, I assume. Or is this, being a figure of speech, exempt from such rules? :thinking:

“Train” in “train of thoughts” is not a locomotive type train.

Train of thought: The process and direction of one’s thoughts

From the early 14th century, the word “train” meant a “drawing out or delay” of something. In the mid-15th century, the word evolved to include a “retinue or procession”. The first example of the term “train of thought” was attested in the 1650s whereas the first use of the word “train” in the sense of a locomotive. As a result, the idiom “train of thought” has nothing to do with trains (the transport) and is more likely to derive from a “delay” of a “procession” of “thought” (hence losing your train of thought).

The term “train of thoughts” was introduced and elaborated as early as in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan


Thank you for this comprehensive explanation. I must admit that I’ve never bothered to check where this really comes from. And I’m usually thorough with my research, since I’m a linguist.
This is where you notice that English is my second language. I swear I always had the image of a train in my mind :joy:
hides in the darkest corner of shame

Big no in historical fiction! Accuracy is important; that would be like saying a fad Ancient Rome was “a flash in a pan” or an Ice Age person who was distracted having “their thoughts derailed”.

Big no for me. I read a lot of historical fiction, and if that came up I wouldn’t read further.

I had problems with readers even saying “shoot the arrow” or using the f-word in historical setting. I would advise find another simile.

I think it’s good to avoid it if you can, but in practice it’s pretty difficult to catch every anachronism, and it’s up to you how strict you want to be. So much of our language is metaphorical that we mostly don’t notice when we use metaphor. (I wound up commenting on this recently, on a fic I enjoyed, as the writer used ‘technicolor’ to describe bright things in a fantasy setting; it stuck out to me because it’s a brandname. But it would be weird to get flustered over something like that; I mentioned it because I knew she’d be interested to hear rather than because it was keeping me up at night.)

EDIT: And it’s also a question of how deeply you want to go into it. Do you also ditch words depending on their etymology? There be dragons.

That would bump me right out. Unless you’re writing fantasy or time travel there is no way you can do this. Historical fiction relies on accuracy and time-consistent similes are part of it.
Plus, your simile is quite complex. Can’t he think of a pillow or something? That would also be appropriate given that they were most likely both made of linen or flax?

Depends on the POV. If it’s the narrative of a time-traveller, sure! Also if it’s third Omniscient. You can do pretty much whatever you want there - also establish that the narrator is not from the 1880s by using a simile like that.

Why would you use imagery that takes the reader out of the milieu you are creating? Same goes for fantasy fiction if you’re trying to create a castles and dragons vibe.

I think it would be a weird thing to do. But weird can be interesting :slightly_smiling_face:

The parachute was invented before 1800, though they weren’t used in military until, I think, the first world war. Certainly not 1880 anyway. A more common reference for the time period would probably be the hot air balloon, but the parachute itself isn’t a deal-breaker.

In general this is called an anachronism and they aren’t recommended in historical fiction. That’s not to say it can never be done, but when it is done, it ought to be done for a good reason, not because you can’t find a time-appropriate simile.

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