Researching the Not-Too-Distant Past: Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

James W. Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mysteries have become one of our favorite series here at the store, and we’re pleased to say that James will be joining us in person on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM, to speak and sign his latest, Heart of Stone. He’ll be joined by Terry Shames and Melissa Lenhardt for a panel discussion on small town mysteries. 

Researching The Not-Too-Distant Past

  • Guest Blog from James W. Ziskin

I write the Ellie Stone Mysteries, a series of traditional whodunnits with hints of noir set in the early 1960s. Readers often ask me about the research necessary when writing stories that take place in the past. I always say the research is one of the most rewarding and frightening aspects of writing historicals, especially ones set in the not-too-distant past. Rewarding why? Because it’s fun to immerse yourself in another era, to reflect on what people did, how they did it, and what they were wearing when they did it. But for me, the rewards of recreating a believable past come with the fear of getting some historical detail wrong. And having some gleeful know-it-all point out the error for all to see. That’s enough to keep me on my toes.

But the pitfalls of historical research aren’t really so different from the challenges of present-day research. At least historical research isn’t a moving target. Think about technology in contemporary novels. How quickly the latest and greatest becomes laughably antiquated. And how many fine writers have fallen victim to gun errors in their books? That’s one reason I don’t use guns in my books. Another reason is that I prefer strangulation, a well-struck blunt object, or the smart shove off a cliff. Gravity unleashed, I like to call it.

So how do I approach research in my books? I consult various sources for my information, nearly all of which can be found on the Internet. Newspapers, timetables, movies, television shows, music, and history. It’s all out there. And there are less obvious sources as well. For the fifth Ellie Stone mystery, Cast the First Stone (June 6, 2017), I made liberal use of an online Los Angeles Street Address telephone directory from 1961. I managed to locate the addresses of places important to my story, including one of the early gay bars in LA, the Wind Up.

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Elsewhere, I found the timetable for the TWA flight Ellie would have taken from Idlewild to Los Angeles. A minor detail, but one that certainly sets the scene. Spoiler: she took flight 7 aboard a 707 Jetliner.
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From a practical point of view, I consider three things essential in research: accuracy, measure, and effectiveness.

  1. The historical reference must be accurate or, let’s face it, it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean I don’t take liberties with certain details. As the writer, I’m in the driver’s seat. I can blur the focus or omit outright anything I’m not sure of. Imagine my heroine is driving a car and stops to fill up the gas tank. What if I don’t know which oil companies were around at that time? Well, for something as commonplace as filling up, nothing requires me to identify the brand of gasoline or the price per gallon. Unless I want to make it a significant plot point, e.g. the murder took place at the Esso station or Ellie only has enough money for a gallon of gas..
(A caveat on the subject of accuracy: Don’t win the battle but lose the war.  I sometimes wrestle with historical facts that may “appear” anachronistic to the present-day reader but are actually correct. Suppose I know for certain that the first color television broadcast in the US was a baseball game in August 1951. 1951! I would have assumed later. And my readers might, too. I don’t need any angry e-mails telling me there was no color TV in 1951, even if there was. So in my books, I might choose to avoid the problem altogether and leave out the question of color.)
  1. Measure. I weigh the pros and cons of exactly how much detail to provide. In my research, I may have stumbled some fascinating information that blows my mind. But that doesn’t mean I should necessarily include it in my book. You can easily bore the reader with too much detail that stinks of research. Everything in good measure.
  1. Effectiveness. I sometimes use historical details to create more than just plot points. I can evoke the period in just a word or two. I call these words “madeleines” after the nostalgic triggers in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. If my heroine asks the gas station attendant to fill the tank with Ethyl or high test or Good Gulf, the reader will probably know we’re not in 2017 anymore. And older readers might feel immediately transported back in time. That’s gold for a writer of historical fiction.

My madeleines can often evoke period with one or two words better than a recount of the actual news stories of the day. Here are some “madeleines” that I’ve used in my Ellie Stone mysteries.

  • Horizontal and vertical hold. Remember adjusting the picture on your old television sets?

  • Crackling AM radio. No frequency modulation there.
  • Transistor radios. My publisher inserted a transistor radio into the cover image specifically to help evoke the proper time period.
  • Rubbers. The kind you wear over your shoes in the rain.
  • Party line. Sharing a phone line with your neighbors, not an adult phone sex number.
  • Phone booths. Where have they gone?
  • Silver dimes and quarters and half dollars. They stopped making them in 1964. You can hear the difference when you flip them off your thumb or drop them on the floor.
  • Telegrams. Kind of an old-timey Twitter.
  • TWA and PanAm. Gone but not forgotten.

I enjoy my trips to the past. I hope readers will too.

James W. Ziskin comes to BookPeople to speak and sign his latest Ellie Stone, Heart of Stone, on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM. You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

His next installment in the Ellie Stone series, Cast the First Stone, comes out in June. Pre-order now!

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