The perils of writing about the near past

You’ve set your story in the near past, a time period with which you are familiar because you grew up in those decades or had relatives who lived through them. Research should be a breeze, right? After all, how hard can it be to get the time period of your own life right? You have memories. And you have internet research at your fingertips, a wealth of information just awaiting your mouse click.

But, beware. The near past as a story setting is a minefield. Step out of line, and verisimilitude explodes, throwing the reader out of your narrative.

You’d think that writing about the near past would be easier, though, than setting tales in faraway times. Easy-to-access research and memory both provide ample material for the meticulous writer of near-past stories. But there’s the rub. Almost too  much is available on the near past, making it difficult for the careful writer to find small details that make a story resonate with truth. And sometimes, we make assumptions about certain aspects of life in the near past that turn out not to be true, had we bothered to look them up.

A few examples: don’t assume that because you grew up watching certain television shows that your characters can watch them…whenever. Back in the days before syndication, TV programs aired in specific time slots. Reruns aired in those slots, too. It took decades for many shows to reach the hamster wheel of syndication, available at all hours and days.

A man wouldn't "zip" his pants in a story set before the 1940s.

A man wouldn’t “zip” his pants in a story set before the 1940s.

Don’t assume, either, that a movie released in a particular year was available the month in which your story is set. Singin in the Rain came out in 1952, but that doesn’t mean the characters in your story could go see it in January of that year, or even in August. It was released, according to IMDB, in U.S. movie theaters in April of that year.

Don’t assume, either, that modern dress was completely modernized at the time of your tale, just because the outfits bear a resemblance to what we wear now. A famous bestseller of the past few years set in the 1930s mentioned a man zipping his pants. But men’s trousers had button flies even up until the 1940s. When zippers replaced buttons, tailors advertised they’d take out the newfangled gadget, replacing them with the old-fashioned buttons, for men who didn’t like this latest sartorial trend.

Think twice, too, about icons of the past. I once began a tale set in the early 1950s, describing one of my characters as having Marilyn Monroe looks. Only problem? I needed to find out specifically when Monroe became well-known during that period. Yes, Monroe’s star had started to soar in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until at least 1953 that she became the sex symbol we all now think of when her name is mentioned. Would she have been hot enough at the early part of that decade to use as a descriptor? I wasn’t sure. I took the reference out.

I also once set a story whose denouement was on December 7, 1941. It took a great deal of time to find out how most Americans learned the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, what radio show was on at the time, when it was interrupted.  Oh, there was a huge amount of information on the attack, but it was all too broad-brush for my story. I needed to know how this news would have reached a particular family in a particular city.

The point is that you might know the macro details of those times, but getting the tick-tock of a momentous day’s hours right is a lot tougher.

The writer who sets a story in the near past has an entire population of possible nitpickers who also lived through those times or know folks who did. And, while there aren’t any Tudorites still living to wag their fingers at the author who gets an arcane fact wrong in a story set during Henry’s reign, armchair critics abound who don’t need a history degree to point out your mistakes in a near-past setting.

So, when writing about the near past, it’s best to treat it as if it were a foreign time long ago. Don’t completely trust your memory, and do look up details whenever possible.

1 Comment

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One response to “The perils of writing about the near past

  1. Jody

    You mentioned the movies. Even in the 1956-1966 years, our small town in western Kansas didn’t get many movies until they’d been out for a year. No all at once distribution.

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