Just the title of this post makes me all kinds of nostalgic. This is because I was a child in the 1970s, which is when my new book, Catch A Falling Star, is set.
1979, to be specific. May-July 1979 to be specific-er.
And exactly that specific because it’s set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, the uncontrolled loss of orbit and eventual crashing to earth of Skylab, one of the world’s first space stations.
I’m told that the 1970s is long enough ago for Catch A Falling Star to be considered historical fiction. Luckily for me, though, having direct experience of that period, I didn’t need to do the kind of research this genre normally calls for. I grew up then! I remember stuff like sea monkeys and Sunny Boys and yelling out “Spunk!” and lying on the warm concrete at the pool all day because skin cancer hadn’t been invented yet. The only things I needed to research were Skylab facts and figures – the exact timeline, direct quotes from newspapers, that sort of thing.
That’s what I thought, in the beginning.
Excuse me while I beat my head gently against this wall.
While I was writing, doubts started creeping in. Like … Hang on a minute – did we say canteen or kiosk back then? Yeah but specifically at the drive-in. Which I never actually went to, on account of not having a car.
And hang on, now that I think about it – I’ve got Frankie, my 12-year-old protagonist, saying On account of, but we’d never have said that back then. And hang on hang on! Did we even say hang on? Or was it hold on? Hang on is American! Or is it? Americanisms weren’t as common, then. When did they start creeping in?
Once I had disappeared down this rabbit hole, there was no going back. I realised that a lot of the language I’d given Frankie was wrong, anachronistic.
I guess so. Same as always. Tell me about it. Come help.
Cue gnashing of teeth, and asking of Twitter. Cue re-writing.
I suppose so. The same as always. Derr, Freddie. Come and help.
These are small things aren’t they? And contemporary young readers aren’t going to know the difference. So why did I bother?
Because having realised it was wrong, I couldn’t not bother. I couldn’t not try and get it at least as right as possible. Because not only does language matter fundamentally, but also because having realised this was wrong made me wonder what else might be. What other errors had I made unthinkingly because I ‘knew’ this period so well, because I had lived it, overlooking the obvious fact that memories are slippery little suckers and that mine are unavoidably stamped by all the years between then and now?
And because getting this seemingly small thing as right as possible had ripple effects for the writing. Getting the language right dropped me more firmly into Frankie’s skin. Looking out at the world from her eyes, I remembered other things, other 1979 things and feelings that were long buried. The era and the setting and the book itself became more realistic and more authentic in other, broader ways. The characters of both Frankie and her little brother Newt came to life on the page much more vividly. And they are what forms the heart of the story.
Getting the language right helped me get the characters right helped me get the emotional core of the story right. And there is nothing more important than that.
It wasn’t just the language, either. Once I was down the rabbit hole, looking around, I realised I’d mis-remembered some other things. Things about crystal radios and Gilligan’s Island and what night of the week I used to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 on my radio-cassette player, my finger poised over the record button.
I did a lot of research, which then became a rabbit hole of its very own. I wanted to stuff everything into the story – Prince Charles’ visit to Esperance!; the International Year of the Child celebrations with their catchy Care for Kids song (I still know all the words); sea monkeys and X-ray specs and Hypno-Coins, oh my! And surely there’s some way I can sneak the phrases Suffer in your jocks! and Ripper tune, Boris! in there somewhere, for no other reason than my abiding love for them.
Anyone who’s ever done research for a book will tell you this stage is part of the process. They’ll also tell you that a story needs to wear its research lightly, and thankfully, this was something I knew.
In the end, a lot of writing ends up on the cutting room floor. And that means a lot of research does too. It seeps into the fabric of the story, rather than sitting on the surface. In the end, there are no sea monkeys in this book. There are no Sunny Boys. But there’s a lot of Skylab. And also, I hope, a lot of heart. Which is something that doesn’t change across history. At least that’s what I’m counting on, that my 1979 kids will find a direct line to 2019 readers.
The next time I see a shooting star, I know exactly what to wish for.