Researching Memory (Kate O'Hara)

Since both of my current series take place in the second half of the 20th century, I can rely on memory a good bit of the time to set the scene. However, memory is tricky. What we did last week somehow creeps into remembrance of what we did decades ago if we aren’t careful. I find I do a lot of “Wikipedia’ research on specific technology or fashions. Here are a couple of examples that might have sneaked by editing if I hadn’t done the research.

In my first Greek Fire novel, Aphrodite on the Half Shell, the female character (me, since I write in first person) needed to make a phone call from her guy’s apartment. I initially wrote he finished his call in the next room and handed her the phone. In reading through later, it occurred to me I’d better find out exactly WHEN cordless phones became available. I was surprised to learn they were not patented until about 1970 and not in use much until 1990. They seem such an integral part of most homes today.

Since the story takes place in 1964, I made a trip down memory lane and visualized what sort of phones I had in my own home at that time. I remembered having a blue princess phone on my kitchen desk, so I gave the same equipment to him with the following comment: “He pointed to a powder blue princess phone on his bed table—just like the one on my desk at home. We even had similar taste in phones.” I did double check the year the princess phone was released and my memory was correct.

In the second of the Greek Fire novels, I wear a borrowed cocktail dress. I looked up the fashions of late 1965 and noted it was the beginning of the mini skirt fad. I used the information in the description of the dress: “A friend at work who was about the same dress size offered to loan me one. I was a lot taller, so the hemline was really short on me. I looked through a few fashion magazines during the week to figure out what I should wear and saw the big splash designer Mary Quant had created with the introduction of her “mini-skirt” styles. Pam’s dress wasn’t quite that short, but it certainly did show plenty of leg.”

In the third book, I comment on using my first in-home dishwasher. I double-checked its availability before 1966 as well as a Jacuzzi tub and a few other renovations featured in the Edwardian home. They all suited both my memory and Wikipedia. I also am careful when referencing music or entertainment of the era. I have changed a song or movie because it wasn’t released at the time of the story.

Of course, you have to keep references current as well or they’re lost on the reader. In my Seeker series, which takes place in the 1990s, I had a line I thought was descriptive, but found most people under 60 didn’t get it. It referenced Ed Wood, one of the early horror movie producers.  I looked up when Tim Burton released his first few strange movies and they fit into the right time frame. The line now reads: “It was like watching a strange collection of Tim Burton cutting room remains.” So, even if you “lived” the era and think you know what was popular, it’s worth a few seconds to do the research and make sure your technology, fashion and even movie references are timely.

Kate O’Hara - who was recently told I don’t write romance, but light erotica! I guess it’s in the mind’s eye of the reader ;-)


Joan Vincent said...

Your having to check when cordless phones came into use reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister recently We were talking about when certain computers became available and had to resort to google to satisfy our desire for accuracy even though we lived through the various stages. She's 9 years younger so didn't get the pleasure of experiencing some of the first versions of computer technology. Checking is always best.