One of the things I need to watch myself on when creating a character is to build the right historical memory.
In a recent story, I had a 17 year old studying in 1942 for her final year of high school. She was snacking on carrot sticks and hommous dip, dried fruit, garlic bread and chicken noodle soup.
On my second run through, I realised that these are the snacks a girl of today would eat. Not a girl of 1942. Not even a woman of my age, studying in the 80s.
So I asked around to find some year-appropriate snacks. I changed the description to include bread, butter and jam.
It’s a tricky thing, this backtracking. I have a fantasic reference book called The Chronicle of World History, which lists, without opinion, the events of the day. Reading it gave me a better idea of the time she was studying in.
I skip her forward to 1962 and came up with the same mistake. I wrote a bar scene which would be right today, but not 40 years ago. It won’t take much to fix it, but I need to place myself back then to get it right, even if it’s a small scene and I only use a word or two of description. It’s the sights and smells, as well. The things that happened in the news. Adolf Eichmann was hanged that year and I imagine it would have caused much discussion. Is my character the type to discuss it? What about the people she is with?
Writing the past is tricky but I like the mental challenge it brings me. Somehow, the last four or five stories I’ve worked on have had at least some element of the past in them. You need to draw the line between whacking in every bit of research you find and creating the feel of the time. Understanding how someone grew up, what their world was like as a child, can help me understand what sort of adult that person is and how they make their decisions in life.
Not just fiction, but real human beings as well. Knowing something about a person (that they lost a parent at an early age, or that they moved around a lot as a child, or that their mother was a well-known charity worker) helps you accept them, understand them.
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