Once I realized that my current work-in-progress would be a “period” comedy set in 1977 I knew I would eventually have to do research. Having lived through the 70s, and having many vivid memories of those times, I find myself getting caught up on the details. I’m not looking for photo-realism so much as I just don’t want to be careless.
I have been trying to gloss over the details as I write, promising that I’ll delve into the research on revision, but almost daily something comes up that prevents the writing from moving forward because the missing details is bothering me. Today the question was the running time for a specific film, and some background on Angela Davis. This information was for logistical purposes – what was known when, how late were my characters at the theatre – and not necessarily the sort of thing that would derail my writing flow.
But then I hit this one bit of dialog. I have a couple of teen boys spying on a cute girl sunbathing in her backyard. I know the details of the scene well enough – I lived it – but suddenly one of the boys is trying to articulate this girl’s characteristics through a comparison with actresses on popular TV shows. One boys says “I can’t tell from this angle if she’s more of a Sabrina or a Janet.”
The references are to Kate Jackson’s character in Charlie’s Angels and Joyce DeWitt’s character on Three’s Company. I promise you, conversations like this really did take place, but what made me instantly uncomfortable was whether or not it would have been possible to have this conversation back in 1977. Were both shows on the air in April of that year? If not, I’d need a different set of comparisons, but I liked the line as written. Not knowing was killing me so the writing stopped for an internet search. Indeed, the 1976-1977 season was the debut for Charlie’s Angels, and Three’s Company was a mid-season replacement that began a month before the scene takes place, making the comparison topical. My memory of that spring was accurate, and the line stands, but I lost the flow of the writing as a result.
I think it’s agreed that details are what gives books set in the past their punch, and yet I recognize at the same time that the contemporary reader isn’t going to know or understand when this information is incorrect. It can’t be assumed they know the references, and it would be equally unnatural to have these boys explain what would have been common knowledge to one another, and thus begins a tricky second-guessing game of “Is it relevent?”
A few weeks ago I saw the movie Hot Tub Time Machine, a different period comedy that plays the 80s for farce, and I kept wondering how accurate some of the details were. Am I making too much of a gross-out comedy to say that I thought some of the songs were off, and wondering if the ski slopes really were that wasted and…pastel? But all this made me realize that, yes, the details must be spot on because otherwise they become a distraction to the story and they undercut the humor. The reader (and moviegoer) should be saying “Wow, I remember that!” and not “That’s not possible.”
So, yes, the accuracy matters. The writing is slower going, but the details… ah, the details. It’s amazing how many more memories come scurrying out when you lift the research rock on a single detail.