Detach a unit of crack troops.
This phrase was caught by a beta reader last week, and with it came an interesting point. At first glance, she thought it was terribly incongruous to the 13th-ish century setting and it jarred her out of reading smoothly. She then proceeded to look it up – proving once again that my beta readers are awesome – and discovered that it’s actually an incredibly old term, used by Sun Tzu over 2000 years ago. So entirely contemporary with the setting, regardless of initial response.
But in a work of fiction, is it more important to be historically accurate or to appear so? Do you teach the reader, or risk jarring them? This is a discussion that came up on Writing Excuses a while back, using the example of the name Tiffany – a common name in the Regency era, but not necessarily accepted as such by the modern audience. There is an argument for sticking to your guns and teaching the audience something new but to be honest this is an area where I’d chicken out most of the time. If education was the reason I wrote, I’d be a teacher. (Tried it once, briefly, never going back.) I write to tell a story and to entertain. Jolting my audience out of submersion is exactly what I don’t want to do.
Is there a way round? Sure. There’s always a compromise. You can put it in footnotes, or author’s notes at the back, or – hey look! – you can blog about it. But unless you’re writing specifically around the details of the Art of War, I’d put perception first.