The Sun Singer's Travels

Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Stephen King, you’re driving me crazy

I once told my publisher that when I write a scene in a novel set in the past and mention the day, time and place, I check the weather report for that location to make sure my weather isn’t at odds with the actual weather.

That is, I don’t want to say that on January x, 19xx was a snowy say in St. Louis and then find out later that was the year of the freak heatwave. And, I don’t want to say that Bob and Carol ran for their lives to get away from tropical storm winds on a Florida beach on August 12, 19xx and then learn that historically, there were no tropical storms anywhere near on that date.

king112263Most people tell me that kind of extreme fact checking is not only anal, but sheer lunacy. They say that it’s probably important in a historical novel where it would be kind of stupid to say the battle of such and such was fought on a hot day when historians know it was snowing, or to say that Bob and Carol hated the Superbowl in 19xx because it was played in a monsoon if, in fact, it wasn’t.

My publisher, who’s also a psychologist, told me she also checks the historical weather for a time and place whenever she mentions a real time and place in a story. We have decided we’re thorough rather than crazy.

So What About Stephen King?

Stephen King often sets stories in the past. I’m currently reading 11/22/63, a novel in which the main character goes back in time to try to stop the Kennedy assassination. I’m enjoying the book, really. But it’s driving me crazy because of the hundreds of references to the slang, hairstyles, popular songs, books, news events and trends of the era which–for the story’s purposes–begins in 1958.

Even though I remember those years, my memory is by no means photographic. So, I know how much trouble it is when you write that a character was listening to a certain song on the radio or went to the library to check out a book. Checking to see when songs and books appeared is time consuming. Now, I don’t know how thorough King is, but it’s one thing to know what year a song or book came out; it’s quite another thing to know when during that year it was available. Personally, I wouldn’t want to say Bob and Carol listened to “Lust Around the Block” in January of 1959 if it didn’t come out until that summer.

An author of a Civil War novel once told me he made an hour-by-hour timeline of the Battle of Atlanta so that he could keep the locations and actions of historical characters straight. Lunacy, some people might say. However, it’s necessary in a historical novel because historical accounts tell us where the people were and what they were doing as campaigns unfolded.

King has to worry about historical facts, too, because Lee Harvey Oswald’s actions before and after 11/22/63 have been documented. Like a true historical novel, King’s fiction–except for his fictional characters–has to fit the known facts.  These facts aren’t that hard to track down if one has been drawn to the Kennedy years and has already read everything in print about them. But tracking down popular songs, books, hairstyles and slang words is almost more difficult because there are fewer places to look this stuff up.

For the writer, many of the sites that focus on slang on the 1950s or clothes of the 1960s are maintained by well meaning hobbyists and often conflict with each other and frequently leave out the provable factual details a writer wants. They say helpful, but slightly vague things, like during the 1950s, guys started cutting their hair in XYZ style or during the 1960s, women started wearing such and such. Well, what do those statements mean if you’re writing about a specific year? When during those decades can you safely say your protagonist wore a certain dress or hairdo? It takes time to figure that out.

11/22/63

So, as I read this novel and see the countless references to the products and styles of those times, I’m not only impressed that King has included them, but rather amazed at their number and specificity. I wonder–jealously–did he have a research staff, a magical research book called “When Every Little Thing Happened?” or a fleet of fact checkers? Thinking of checking those facts is what drives me crazy, Mr. King. I’m hoping I won’t need therapy when I finish reading the book.

–Malcolm

AtSeaBookCoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea,” a navy novel set during the Vietnam War, the writing of which proved he had to look up a lot of stuff even though he was there.

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4 thoughts on “Stephen King, you’re driving me crazy

  1. And here I thought you were going to snag him for mistakes in those “facts”. 🙂 I understand where you’re coming from re the fact checking (most especially in historicals), but I would suggest King has a very good memory, and that most readers aren’t obsessing over whether a particular song was available in June or November of 1959. When you write about “other worlds than these” as much as King does, people tend to accept what you say and chalk any differences up to “the next world over”.

    • I’m sure no readers worry about those references at all because they (the references) are mainly brick-a-brac in the story and have little impact on the action. I note them because of the difficulties I always have pinning them down when I write. Few people are going to go check them out. 🙂

  2. If an author throws in too many eral references, it comes across as if they are slapping me in the face with their research into trivia. Yes, make sure the weather is true, make sure the moon was full on any day a full moon was important, but those are subtle backpinnings to a story. A few references into cultural phenomena are nice, but there is no one (or very few folk, anyway) who are completely and totally immersed in the culture of the day. Most people pick and choose. And there are others who are totally oblivious to what is going on. And there are always cultural overlappings. Saddle shoes, for example were a major fashion statement in the late forties and into the fifties, but some of us were forced to wear them in the late sixties, so being too immersed in an era’s culture turns a story into fantasy rather than fact.

  3. That’s always a danger, isn’t it. Too much research and then cramming it all into the novel so that none of it goes to waste. King’s references seem to work because of the way the story is unfolding, but in the hands of a less astute author, they would feel like they had been pasted into the story line for show.

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