Getting the Past Right Is Tough—Even If I Lived Through It by Peg Herring

Posted by on Jul 16, 2017 in 20th Century US, Featured Book, Historical Research | 6 comments

I enjoy writing what I call “vintage” mysteries, books set in a time that’s historical but recent enough that some of us were there. My newest mystery, Her Ex-GI P.I., takes place in the late 1960s. It’s actually a re-release of a book accepted by a publisher early on in my career and made available only as an e-book. I learned a lot in those first years, and two things about the book stuck out.

First, the cover, in black with slinky females prominent (which was the publisher’s doing), put readers off. Second, the title, Go Home and Die, didn’t fit the G-rated, cozy-ish sub-genre. (That was my mistake.) I eventually got the rights back and released the book in e- and print formats with a new cover (white Go-Go boots) and a title that reflects more accurately the tone of the story. (I’ve included the old and new here so readers can judge for themselves whether they agree.)

I was surprised at how much research it took to write about a time I lived through and thought I remembered well. Though I had a sense of what it was like for me, I consulted friends, online resources, and magazines to dredge up information on what happened, what we wore, what things cost, and even what the “cool” vocabulary was. Did we use words like awesome back then? We did, as well as love bites for hickies and gum ball machines for the lights on a police cruiser. I also used my husband shamelessly to get the flashbacks to Vietnam right—the sights, the sounds, and the smells of war in a foreign place.

When younger people think of the ‘60s, they picture upheaval and marches and a general distrust of government, but most of us lived ordinary lives and ignored all that whenever possible. As students chanted and senators argued, we worked at our jobs, dealt with difficult family matters, and wondered what to have for dinner. That’s the tone I chose for the book. Concerns about whether contact lenses could possibly “slice” one’s eyes. The idea that soda was a special treat, not an everyday beverage. The danger to a woman’s reputation if she traveled overnight with a man, even for reasonable purposes.

The key to writing about a time is to focus on the way the characters would have felt then, not how they’d feel today. Women were still being reminded in the ’60s that being “ladylike” was important, even if one chose to have a career. We were often reminded that though men were drawn to women with “loose” morals, they seldom married them. In that climate, it would be hard for a ’60s woman to quit a secure job to join a man she hardly knew in order to solve a murder. My character, Carrie, has to have good reasons to do so, knowing she’ll be criticized at every turn. Part of her motivation is her attraction to Jack Porter, the taciturn Vietnam vet, but the other part is a desire to be someone she would like to be rather than someone the world thinks she should be.

Carrie and Jack are the antithesis of Gloria Steinem and Richard Nixon. Jack doesn’t have time to dwell on why he was sent to fight in Vietnam, and Carrie doesn’t realize she’s becoming a liberated woman. She also hasn’t got a clue why a girl would burn her bra. After all, decent underwear isn’t cheap!

Peg Herring, July 17, 2017

Now available on Kindle!

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6 Comments

  1. Your description of the sixties fits with my memories. We were not all pot smoking hippy protesters. It was a great decade.
    I’m looking forward to reading your book, re-titled & with its more realistic cover. The original title & cover wouldn’t have done it for me second one far more appealing. It seems ludicrous now thinking back on the gender issues & restrictions of the time. However like so many women from that era I was just busy getting on with my life not really thinking about female repression.Fortunately for me there were strong minded women who fought for women’s rights. Best of luck with your sixties as they were approach though no doubt tongue in cheek to some extent.

    • You and I had similar experiences. Things weren’t too radical at good old Central Michigan University!

  2. The need for careful research, even for a period only a few decades old, cannot be overstated. I frequently use an online etymological dictionary to check appropriateness of words: http://www.etymonline.com/ because . . . well, I’m an authenticity nut. And I lived through the 60s and they were a very mixed bag.

    • As in “Papa’s Got a Brand New…?” Sorry, couldn’t resist.:)

  3. I love Peg Herring’s Elizabethan mysteries, and as a writer of historical mysteries set in Puritan Boston I prefer living in the way-past than current-past; it must be much easier to research and there aren’t any living Cotton Mather’s to argue with you.

    • Thanks, M.E. I was sad when Five Star left the mystery business!