This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What It Was Like in 1970

            In my third Quill Gordon mystery, due out next summer, one of the clues is the murder victim’s journal for the period covering September 1970 to February 1971. I just got through writing the first draft of the section that quotes excerpts from that journal and found that I enjoyed the trip down memory lane.
            As you might guess from the photograph that accompanies this blog, I am old enough to remember 1970 and remember it fairly well. But that good personal memory is only a starting point for accurately depicting the time in a book, even a work of fiction.
            To be convincing, that section would have to be correct in relevant details, some of which are critical to the story itself. What I found in the course of writing it over the past couple of weeks was that my memory told me what I needed to look for and check, and that, in the process of checking it, I struck some gold I wasn’t even prospecting for.

God Bless Wikipedia

            I’ve said before that there are days I love the internet and days I hate it. Looking up stuff from the 1970s made it all the first kind of day. How did an author ever survive without Wikipedia? Without it, I could have spent weeks trying to pin down one little fact that was at my fingertips online.
            It struck me, for example, as I was writing the section, that the woman keeping the journal would likely have been a fan of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” My memory told me it was on in the early seventies, but would it have been on the air during the window covered by the journal? Yup. In fact, I had the keeper of the journal watching it the night of Sept. 19. 1970, and checking Wikipedia, I found that this was the date the first episode aired. How good does it get?
            Elsewhere on the internet, I was able to quickly pin down the years in which two pieces of legislation were passed in California, both of which were critical to the plot. Whatever else the reviewers on Amazon might ding me for, it won’t be getting the facts wrong about the timing of those laws.

The Serendipitous Finds

            Despite what some people think, not everything is online, and I had to get some information the old-fashioned way. Three days of the journal describe events in San Francisco just before Christmas, so one morning I went to the Santa Cruz public library and looked up the San Francisco Chronicle for late December of 1970 on microfilm.
            They had great columnists then — Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Charles McCabe, Stanton Delaplane, Royce Brier, William Hogan, and even that over-the-top sexist Count Marco. A two-line item in Caen’s column became a scene described in the character’s journal. The movie listings prevented the character from seeing “Love Story” before it actually opened. And an ad for a long-gone department store provided a window into what things cost in those days.
            The internet is great for looking up specific things, but it’s lousy for stumbling across things by chance. The three issues of the Chronicle that I looked at on microfilm provided a snapshot of San Francisco at that moment of time. As with any picture, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the frame. Still, the details I came across will, I believe, enliven my book, and coming across them in that way was a reminder of what we will be missing if (or when) newspapers go the way of dinosaurs.