Researching Recent History
I should begin with a confession: As a writer, I don’t have much in common with any self-assured, elbow-patched master of the craft. Instead, I chase after topics like a puppy chases lightning bugs, leaping at every new flash, spinning mad circles in the summer twilight before collapsing exhausted onto a soft carpet of a freshly-mowed lawn.
In other words, I suffer from a short attention span and an inclination to naps.
These traits helped shape the creation of my debut novel. TITANSHADE is a murder mystery set in an alternate world with 1970s technology. This setting immediately appealed to my inner puppy because A) it blends the familiar with the unknown in fun and flashing-light ways, and B) I thought it would make my life easier, leaving more time for naps.
So I dove into the novel headfirst, chasing the flashing lights and assuming I’d have to do minimal research. After all, there’s no shortage of information about the 70s, and hey– I’ve even got first-hand knowledge! How hard could it be, right?
I think you see where this is going.
Halfway through the first draft, I realized my catastrophic miscalculation. Yes, I’d experienced the 70s… as a kindergartener. My expertise was limited to juice boxes and show-and-tell, not the inner workings of a homicide investigation. Even worse, when I finally started my research, I found that very few sources addressed the day-in, day-out drudgery suitable for noir fiction. In order to make any headway, I knew I had to find a different approach.
Death at the Disco
Let’s take a simple example: a patron has been found dead at a popular nightclub. Our goal in this scene is to create a vivid sense of setting and to convey the forensic science of the investigation.
Just like today, nightclubs in the 70s ranged from high-end to grungy. (The cocaine-fueled decadence of Studio 54 was worlds away from the intentional squalor of CBGB, for example.) Because we’re writing fantasy, we also need to reveal the rules and norms of the world in a way that seems natural. We need to find small details, short asides that feel like background flavor to the reader, but actually do the heavy lifting of world-building. And when it comes to recent history, these are the kind of details it can be surprisingly hard to turn up.
There’s no shortage of articles about the discos and dance halls of the 70s, but almost all of them were written decades after the fact. Retrospective articles are fine for some things – want to know when Studio 54 opened its doors? Easy! – but it can be a mistake to rely on them for a true feel of what life was like at that place, in that time.
We run into the same issue portraying the forensic team investigating the crime. Hop online and you’ll find a wealth of resources about forensics. But almost all of them showcase current technology and theories. It seems the 1970s fall into that narrow range of post-computer, but pre-Internet, a period of time for which surprisingly few archives are available online.
From the Horse’s Mouth
The most direct method to learn about recent history is to talk to the people who lived it. Reach out to family members or friends of friends to see who might be willing to share their story with you. These people are treasures, rich sources of history and experience. But they can sometimes put a spin on their experiences or find that their recollections have become clouded over time. Memories are great, but even better are contemporary accounts.
Contemporary accounts are less tainted by nostalgia and tend to be focused on the level of comfort and short-term concerns. Conveniently, that’s what most fictional characters are interested in, as well.
One of the most effective methods I’ve found is to track down the technical manuals and travel guides from the era. Travel guides are covered in more detail in Fantastic History #3, and are great resources often filled with the small details that can bring a setting to life, such as the real cost of daily items, or tips on how not to get pick-pocketed.
In our example of a murder that takes place in a disco, we’re better off looking beyond the mainstream, and finding sources that were targeted to a niche market. Fanzines and gossip columns described the activity in the clubs with more relish than would ever appear in a traditional newspaper column. Often viewed as ephemera, these sources were only rarely saved. Finding them requires scouring second-hand bookstores and haunting university library book sales.
For topics like forensic procedures, the best source is often contemporary technical instruction. Especially valuable are texts geared to the general public or introductory texts intended for trainees in the field. Some of these manuals are available in digital form, but the vast majority are not. Back to the second-hand stores! (I wish I could make that sound like work, but it’s way too much fun.)
A much easier resource to locate is contemporary photos. These images give a glimpse into the sights (and implied sounds and smells) we might encounter in any given setting. Ranging from snapshots to artistic explorations, photos have been preserved more frequently than paper items. Collections are readily available online, covering everything from Chicago nightclubs to life on the NYPD.
Putting it Together
Getting the period-specific details right is only part of the equation. A fantasy setting gives us some leeway; as long as things “feel” like the late 70s, the readers will be along for the ride. A bigger issue is the possible ramifications that magic and other technologies might have on the historical setting. These need to be thought through as much as possible, their “what if?” blending with our research to create an immersive experience.
It’s not always easy to focus your inner writerly puppy, but the hard work pays off. Discovering first-hand accounts and sliding into the mindset of an era allows us to highlight the wonder and strangeness of the times, while also giving readers enough essential information to follow the narrative. So if you’ve got a story set in a recent historical era, go ahead and do the work. Talk to people who lived it, dig up original sources, and plunge into the images and stories that informed life in that place and time. There’ll be plenty of time to chase lightning bugs when you’re done.
Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Mad Scientist Journal. His debut novel Titanshade releases in March 2019 from DAW Books. To say hello, visit him at DanStout.com.