Author Pamela Kelt on Anachronisms - and Tomorrow's Anecdote

Today, I'm delighted to welcome journalist and author, Pamela Kelt, who's celebrating the release of her first Crooked Cat Publishing novel, Tomorrow's Anecdote. Many congratulations, Pamela!

Those who were around in the '80s will remember quite a few things, both good and bad. Rock music. Good. Leg warmers. Bad. Shoulder pads. Very bad. Big storms. Ouch!

But first, let's hear it from Pam...



A timely thought about anachronisms

Chronological inconsistencies come in many forms. My personal favourites are the unintentional visual clangers on screen: the pale watch mark on a bronzed Roman Gladiator or a jet crossing the sky while Holmes and Watson wrangle with Bradshaw’s railway timetables.

Fan sites gleefully fill the ether with such gaffes. We all love bloopers.

My first book was set in 1885. I was pretty confident that I could avoid perpetrating any time-based errors. After all, I was a fan of Victoriana and an addict of 19th-century period drama on the telly. How hard could it be? Those set-dressers are spot on, even if some of the scripts are a bit ragged.

The official stuff was fine, but what slowed me down was the domestic detail. How much did you tip a tradesman? How did you clean the stove? How did you cook on the stove? What did the stove even look like?

I started to collect a veritable barrage of Victorian-themed websites, filled with such mundane ephemera. Thank goodness for those reality history shows on the box, too. However, the amount of research often distracted me from my purpose. I spent hours, days, weeks, months digging around contemporary records, wrangling with minor details. 



Next book, I thought. I’ll be smart. I’ll set the story in living memory, but with a retro hint. Then I won’t have to look anything up. 

Ah.

The next book turned out to be Tomorrow’s Anecdote, based on my personal experiences of a 1980s newsroom. Out it poured in a cathartic rant. Only slowly did I realise the murky waters into which I was plunging without wellies, let alone waders. 

It was pretty straightforward at first. The story begins in the newsroom. I could hear the clunky keyboards, picture the metal in-trays, smell the carpet-tiled floors …

I had to recreate the work of a subeditor in those days, but I could recall the fonts we used (very old hat now). Cooper Bold, Rockwell … Oh, that takes me back. I double-checked, pouncing on some great Daily Mirror spreads from the period in similar fonts. Great.

But when the story took off and characters started to interact, I realised I was hazy about technological details, especially. What computers did we use? All I could recall were beige perspex boxes. No internet, obviously, but when did online page layout come in? I couldn’t even recall what phones were planted on our littered desks. Surely we’d moved onto push-button sets by then? 

We’re so used to contemporary living, I struggled with the details of work before the digital age. Ironically, I’d been so busy and in the thick of it, I simply couldn’t remember. As it’s in living memory, I couldn’t just make anything up. I knew better than to assume and hope for the best.

I began to badger my memory and plague friends and family. What system did you use back in the day? Aha. My husband recalled our old Amstrad; continuous stationery, tiny keyboard, recalcitrant printer … Well, he probably fought with it more than I did. 

More memories crept back. Clunky video cassettes, even clunkier VCRs, including one whose remote was still connected by a flex trailing across the room. Ironically, if I’d left that in, you’d have thought I was exaggerating. I realised one can be too authentic.

If you search for ‘retro’ on the web, which I thought was the correct term, all you get is 1950s and 1960s paraphernalia. That was such a red herring.

As the story progresses, the heroine has to do some research, the old-fashioned way. Without the internet, it was so much more labour intensive – and random. Luck played a greater part. I recalled the paraphernalia: microfiche, microfilm, records offices, manila files, hand-written records. I had to look up how the microfiche readers worked, but I did remember the awful headache one always got from staring at the screen.

As I ferreted around archived material, it struck me that we look at photos differently too, these days. In the past, you might have just one picture, so you had to make it work and glean as much from the image as possible. I suspect the skill of ‘reading a picture’ is waning, for there’s simply so much information now, so many images, that we take them for granted.

I enjoyed working the characters hard, employing all manner of methods to unearth information: telephone, letter, photocopies, drawing timelines with a ruler and biro, typing, asking around, talking to real people, legwork. I think that’s fairly authentic. Today, we’re so glued to Facebook that I wonder if the art of witty banter fade? 

Back to avoiding anachronistic clangers and the research for authenticity. When I was child, the first port of call was a book. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases. I still have them, although they’re pretty much wall furniture these days. But in my hunt for the real 1980s, my typical reference books were useless. 

However, I plugged away and started to dig out some brilliantly geeky sites about the history of computing, with the dates when key product arrived on the market. This in turn gave me the ammunition to quiz friends, family and colleagues. 

It started to come together, but at times I ached to speed the plot along with a quick email. They’re such a great plot device, but a no-no for this book. Anyone working in a university might remember a primitive system called Janet, and were invited to attend workshops on … duh, duh, duhhhh … the world-wide web. Nobody had a clue what it meant. We really didn’t. We didn’t even know that we didn’t know. It dawned on me just how we reliant we were on the TV and newspapers. (I still miss Teletext.) 

In one scene, a young girl goes missing. My main character reaches for her mobile. Oops. Lord, how did we manage without mobile phones? I got quite exercised about that one but managed to get it sorted (by roping in a friend and having lots of change for call boxes).

There’s no artistic licence when it comes to fiction in living memory. Back in 1885, one could rework patent law by inventing a prototype bicycle light or whatever, without too much fallout, as long as it was plausible. This ploy simply wouldn’t work for 1987. 

So, more homework. I dug out footage from the late Eighties. Do you remember the telly? Now that bit was fun to browse, although there’s not as much as you might think. I did locate a recording of the Michael Fish broadcast where he misdiagnosed the severity of the Great Storm of 1987. The hair! The suit! The child-like weather symbols they velcroed onto the chart. This was more like it. Just as well I checked, or my misremembered version of the broadcast would have been far too slick.

One of my favourite finds was a shot of the new Bond, Timothy Dalton, surrounded by fans. The women were wearing contemporary high street gear that was more authentic than any fashion magazine predicting trends. This is how we really looked; big, permed hair, with highlights, padded shoulders, chunky jewellery, knee-length skirts.

Another conundrum. Just as with the book set in 1885, I realised I had no sense of money. How much was a pint of milk? A bottle of wine? A posh meal? I guess I could have written around such things, but I wanted to know. As luck would have it, I was unpacking some old china and found a sheet of classified ads from, you guessed it, 1987. I ironed it flat and filed it away. 

So, anachronisms. Historical? Check. Technical? Check. Social? Almost, but then I had a sudden memory of one the printers blanching at my language. I’d spent two years in Australia and swore like a trooper. Women really didn’t in those days. (Many men still openly sneered at ‘women’s lib’, that I do recall). Sloane Ranger English was in, glamorised by the Princess of Wales. Male journalists did swear, but I had to rack my brain to recall in what way exactly. I started with ‘plonker’, which sounded very 1980s, and worked down from there, with my husband’s help and a few beers. (He’s from Tas-bloody-mania and is curses eloquently in Australian and English, especially when watching sport.) Someone said ‘smeg’ at one point, which I had to ditch when I spotted that Red Dwarf didn’t air until 1988.

When I started on the music scene I knew I’d hit pay dirt. Trying to recapture the mood of the period was critical and now I had it. Half a chord of Tears for Fears and I was flung body and soul back in the Eighties. 

Digging out the lyrics was fascinating, too. Lord, we were all so neurotic and paranoid. Oddly, this came out more in the music than anywhere else, and brought those tense, frenzied days alive. I then realised I also needed to look forward, see what events that happened after 1987, which are just as significant. For example, we didn’t know the Berlin Wall, the most bizarre political anachronism in itself, would be brought down in 1989. I had to picture a world with it still in existence. Now that was odd.

After thinking about all these anachronisms, it struck me in a brain-whirling moment that a book about what didn’t happen in the past is in itself an anachronism. 

Well, at least I didn’t upset the prime directive. Nothing impinged on what happened afterwards. I watched TNG, so I’m an expert (but only from September 1987, of course). Thatcher moved on. Diana died. The wall came down. 

Thinking about it, if anyone found an anachronism in the book and put it on a jokey website, I’d be rather chuffed. I’d take it as a sign of affection.



Thanks very much, Pam. This is something every writer will wrestle with at some stage. I certainly do with each of my novels, even my contemporary 21st century manuscript...  


~~~

Blurb:


Just another day in the newsroom? Hardly.

October 1987. Clare Forester is an overworked and under-appreciated features subeditor on a provincial paper in Somerset. She spends her time cheerfully ranting about her teenage daughter, the reclusive lodger, her spiteful mother, the Thatcher government, new technology, grubby journalists, petty union officials, her charming ex - and just about anything else that crosses her path.

If things aren’t turbulent enough, on the night of Thursday, October 15th, the Great Storm sweeps across Britain, cutting a swathe of destruction across the country.

Things turn chaotic. Pushed to breaking point, Clare finally snaps and loses her temper with gale-force fury - with disastrous results.

As she contemplates the chaos that her life has become, Clare soon comes to a bitter conclusion.

Never trust the past. It lies.



~~~

About the author:

Pamela Kelt first managed to avoid any semblance of work by taking Spanish at the University of Manchester. On completion of the degree and after a subsequent six brain-fogging months on a local paper, she fled to Oxford photo4_PamKelt_colourand completed her M. Litt. thesis on ‘Comic aspects of satirical 17th-century comic interludes’, which was not only much more fun, but strangely relevant to coping with the vagaries of the 21st century. After becoming a technical translator, she discovered that English was easier, and did copywriting for anyone who would pay. On a stint in Australia, she landed a job as a subeditor and returned to journalism, relishing the chance to come up with funny headlines in a variety of provincial papers. Ah. Once a pun a time. 
As her academic husband became a chemistry professor in something even she can’t spell, Pam moved into the more sensible world of educational magazines and online publishing – for a while, at least. A daughter arrived and reintroduced her to the delights of fiction, which she’d sort of forgotten about. So, one fine day, while walking the dogs at a local beauty spot, thinking ‘to hell with a career’, Pam took the plunge into writing for herself, and is now the author of five books to date (including one co-written with aforementioned prof, with more in the pipeline) ranging from historical drama by way of teen fantasy to retro mystery.
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Author Links:



Buy Links:

Amazon UK   Amazon Overseas   Crooked Cat Books


2 comments:

  1. Anachronisms are something I just hate in an historical novel. I plug away to avoid them in my own writing but sometimes they just sneak in there in phrases. Teh checking of those can be the 'absloute pits'! Now just when did that phrase become popular? Can I remember? Best wishes with Tomorrow's Anecdote.

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    1. So true, Nancy. Phrases have a way of sneaking in. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

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