Long Ago and Far Away

I write mysteries under the name Kris Nelscott. I'mcurrently working on the next.

These mysteries are set in an alien world, withunfamiliar technology, and inexplicable cultural attitudes. You're thinking, She does that in her Retrieval Artistsf/mystery series. Why the pen name? What's so different about these books?

What's different is this: The Kris Nelscott novels,about black private detective Smokey Dalton, are set in Chicago 45 years ago.

I wrote the first novel in 1997, and my editor atthe time called it “historical.” I was offended. I was alive in 1968, when the first novel was set. I was eight, but I wasalive. The first novel takes place in the days surrounding Dr. Martin LutherKing, Jr.'s assassination, and I remember that day clearly. (I was trying on abunny costume—not Playboy bunny. Easter Bunny bunny—and no one wanted to lookat it. They were all staring at the TV.)

I had no idea how 1968 could be historical. Itwasn't that different from 1997.  Yeah,in 1997, we worked on computers, but they weren't that common for blue-collarfolks. Some people could afford cell phones, but in reality, the differencesweren't extreme. Most people still smoked in restaurants, most cars could befixed by a hands-on mechanic, and many of the chains that existed in 1968 stillexisted.

Not any more.

The book I'm currently writing, which will be outnext year, takes place in January 1970. I spent most of this month digging inold newspapers like I always do, because I get great details from oldnewspapers.

And here's the first major difference. In 1998, Ihad to go to Chicago to get my hands on thebiggest black newspaper in the country, TheChicago Defender. (The first book, set in Memphis, didn't use the Defender.) I spent my days either in thepublic library searching microfiche or in the Museum of Radio & Television,watching old video tapes, streamedthrough their library archive because they didn't want patrons touching thematerials.

Yeah, everything looked old, but not that old.Except the fashions. The fashions were horribly out of date.

Attitudes weren't as out of date as we would haveliked. People still used the N-word in regular conversation—and they didn'tcall it “the N-word.”

Now, to dig through the Defender's archive, I contacted my local library—via e-mail—andthey gave me—via e-mail—the password to a library reference account so that Icould view issues of The Defender athome. On my laptop. On my computer. On my television. On my iPad. The onlything I couldn't do with those issues was copy and paste them or excerpt themwithout some electronic watermark.

I ordered all of my research books from variousonline sites, and had them shipped to me. I watched videos directly from the TVstations that made them, online, at home, in the comfort of my office. Icould've watched them on my phone forheaven's sake. When the stations didn't have the archive footage I wanted, Iwent to the Museum of Radio & Television. Not just Chicago's great archive, butalso the ones in New York and Los Angeles. They let me searchtheir archives as well.

I started my research Super Bowl weekend, and youknow what the hype was like. Biggest This, Biggest That. Commercials!Commercials pre-aired on YouTube! Online Discussions! Local casinos, takingbets. Every bar and restaurant with a Super Bowl Party somewhere.

My 1970 research included Super Bowl IV, which tookplace a month earlier than it did in 2013, and had almost no hype. Yeah, it wasa big football game, but it didn't mean a lot in Chicago because Chicago wasn't playing. So whocared about the Vikings or the Chiefs? Who cared about New Orleans—or the fact that thevery first celebrity (Carol Channing) actually showed up for the half-timeshow. The show was a tribute to Mardi Gras, which Chicago did not celebrate.

In fact, the only thing recognizable about my 1970research was, of all things, the fashion. Yep, it's back. With the exception ofthe hair. Everyone says hair was big in the 1980s. They should look at the afrocirca 1970. They really should.

I started a list on my Facebook page—phrases youwouldn't understand (or meant something different) in 1970. One-hundred pluspeople participated, some I've never met in person. Heck “Facebook page” is aphrase no one would have understood in 1970. The phrase that started it all forme?  “Tweeting The Grammys.”  My brain is locked in 1970 at the moment, butI live in 2013. “Tweeting the Grammys” seemed really weird to me.

We are, as my husband said after  I mentioned this, truly in a science fictionuniverse. The world is smaller—I've been corresponding with a friend in Bulgaria all day (that's not a1970s phrase either)—and more accessible. We carry more information on our phones than the nonfiction section inmy local library has on its shelves.

I am writing this essay on a computer in Oregon. I'll then e-mail theessay to my husband who is traveling in Idaho. He reads everythingfirst. If he likes it, I'll then e-mail it to Florida. Once accepted, theessay will get uploaded, and you folks will read it, from wherever you are.

Explain that to someone in 1970. They'll call itscience fiction, and it is.

Just like 1970 is history. It's a lot easier for meto understand that I am not ten years old any more and ten is a long, long,long time ago than it was to look back at eight from the distance of mymid-thirties. It's pretty clear that my past took place in a historical timeperiod, because the world looks—and sounds—nothing like it did then.

Except for the platform shoes. And seriously, whywould someone revive those things?

Of course, they're reviving the TV shows too. Andthat's about it.

Because really, there isn't much about 1970 that'sbetter than 2013. 1970 was smelly (cigarettes, cigars, b. o.), violent (5,000 successful bombings in the US alone), and isolating.Women were second-class citizens. In some parts of the country, minoritiesweren't considered citizens at all.

It's a great place, in some ways a natural place, to set a mystery. But itsure isn't a place I'd like to live in again.

I like my science fiction world.

I can't imagine what another 45 years will bring.

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