For the first time in a long time I settled in front of the TV last night with a pen and notebook in hand, using the programme for learning not just entertainment. It was the first of the new Inspector George Gently series, set in 1969, and it was the date and the northern police setting that were important for me. My first crime novel is currently in progress, set in the Furness district of Lancashire in 1969, and the hardest thing about it so far – apart from the plotting, the 3 act structure, characterisation and dialogue! – has been to find those authentic touches that are so critical to the proper depiction of setting and time.
I’ve already sought out and corresponded with people who experienced the relevant settings first hand, which I didn’t personally although I was a young adult at the time. That was really helpful. I made copious notes and as I’m writing some of those details are bubbling up, still leaving 90% of the research behind. I recall talking to a community policeman from that era who told me he was offered a panda car but refused it as it would mean changing his beloved helmet for a cap. Priceless, and it’s in. And I have an ex-copper writer friend who has generously offered to check my draft when it’s complete looking for things that just don’t sound right.
As I watched George Gently last night two things struck me very strongly about life in 1969. One was the huge impact on our lives at that time of smoking. Most of the characters smoked unceasingly. Every desk and table had an ashtray, usually overflowing, every room was blue with smoke. What you can’t get from the TV is the smell, but it came back to me. The smell of the ashtray, of smoke on your clothes after a night out, of a newly opened packet of cigarettes. And the other non-visual sensation, for me at least, was the stinging of my eyes after even a few minutes exposure to a smoky room, which kept me out of pubs for years until the smoking ban was introduced, even though for much of my early adulthood I was a smoker myself.
At the start of the programme, there was a warning – or was it just an observation – that the attitudes in the story were a reflection of their time. The underlying theme of the story was the treatment of women in general, and the investigation of allegations of rape in particular. I knew, but I’d forgotten. Somebody had done their homework. Out of 120 allegations of rape over a 5 year period in this one small force, the majority were withdrawn by the victims before any charges were laid and only 6 resulted in custodial sentences. Interview rooms were crowded with men asking the complainants personal questions and laughing at their responses, or shouting that they were lying, or had been ‘asking for it.’ I’m prepared to believe that things have changed, but it was a shock to see and hear just how bad it was not very long ago. For all the scoffing and resentment at ‘PC’ attitudes, many many women’s lives have been changed for the better by more recent condemnation of this kind of behaviour.
My own story picks up some of this, but I’ll go back through again and pick up words, smells, attitudes, and expressions reminiscent of the times, to sprinkle the dust of authenticity lightly across the page. But it has to be done lightly. Some fiction lays the researched authentic detail on with a trowel, clogging up sentences and slowing down the action. You can be impressed once or twice by the quality and depth of the research, but only once or twice before it gets tedious. It doesn’t take much to achieve the effect you want: use of a word that was of its time and has since faded, a smell, an item of clothing, something being eaten. Much of the 60s detail is now regarded as retro and back in fashion, but fondue sets and lava lamps and beehive hairstyles, and the ever-present cigarettes, are still for me evocative of a very particular period.
What I won’t be doing is adding the style and model number of the electric iron that the heroine uses on her full skirt, or the packaging of the Vesta chinese curry she assembles for her supper. Do you remember dehydrated mashed potato? What were we thinking! ‘For mash get smash’. Happy days.