Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How much a difference could 5 years make?

Sharon Wildwind

I read a historical mystery recently that felt vaguely out-of-focus. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I happened upon an author interview. He said that he’d appropriated several historical figures and events that came along a few years after the book took place, but were too good to miss, so he brought them forward several years.

As it happened I know something about his book’s historical period. It was a time of great perception changes and attitude shifts. The gap between when the book takes place and when those historical figures really lived was only a few years, but those years made a difference.

Huge wars, like the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the Great War (1914 - 1918), create those huge societal shifts in a five-year period. It isn’t only war that causes rapid changes.

If I were writing a novel set in the United States in 1958, I could not include any of these large-scale events: a communist government in Cuba, the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, or the Cuban Missile Crisis; John F. Kennedy’s presidency; Second Vatican Council; The Civil Rights Movement; the Mercury space program; Vietnam; or the Woman’s Movement. All of them happened between 1959 and 1963.

Here’s a quiz about cultural icons. How many of these could I legitimately mention in my 1958 book?
Amnesty International
Barbie and Ken
birth control pills
Coronation Street
Dr. Who
General Hospital
human HIV-related deaths
instant reply during football games
James Bond films
K-Mart or Wal-Mart
kidney transplants
Navy SEALs
plain paper photocopying
push-button phones
Tab, the first diet drink
the Beatles
the Peace Corps
the Rolling Stones
smiley faces
the St. Lawrence Seaway
the term personal computers
ZIP codes

It’s not that I object to what the author did. I enjoy alternative histories. I’ve finagled characters and timelines myself. But I do think authors owe it to their readers to tell them when they do this. A sentence in the introductory material like, “Those familiar with Finneas T. Flogg’s Grape-Jelly Bean experiment will realize that I placed it several years before its actual date. Such is an author’s prerogative.”

Oh, that list of cultural things above. None of those things belong in a book written in 1958 because they, also, were coined, invented, or began between 1959 and 1963. The one on the list that surprised me was that the first human HIV-related death happened in the Congo in 1959.

Quote for the week
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.
~ Yogi Berra, New York Yankees catcher, and creator of some very interesting phrases.


Jeri Westerson said...

Took me a moment, but I figured your quiz was none of the above. Recent history is often much harder to write about than the distant past.

Jeff Baker said...

There was a letter that turned up decades ago, purporting to be a love letter from J.F.K. to Marilyn Monroe (or vice-versa.) It was a forgery, of course. It included a ZIP Code, something that post-dated both of them. (Yes, the address was TOO correct...)

Anonymous said...

Jeff, that is fascinating. It never ceases to amaze me that people fail to do basic research.