We can use ‘historical’ items as scene enhancers and clarifiers. As discussed in my catchphrase Building Blocks post, we strive with our references to establish, and/or enrich the reader’s perception of the environment or the action. Of course our success depends on the reader’s knowledge and understanding of the referenced moment in time. While it is easy to do this with well-referenced worldly events, “in 1492, Columbus sailed…”, it becomes ‘hit-or-miss’ with ‘minor’ historical events. This is explained by Dave, a historical psychologist, in Through a Stranger’s Eye*:
…They talked about the street the Laundromat was on, and how it had changed over the years. The change in customers, their jobs, dress, and recreation. Mack told Ted about the history of the motorized washer. How his granddad bought a Maytag Model 72 aluminum tub multi-motor in 1923. Tinkered with it and opened his Drop-off Laundry in ’28…”After reading about a new business idea in 1940, Gran, my dad helping out, with six Model J’s, the first really dependable machines, transitioned this place to self-service. Course we switched to commercial machines in ’53. They were coin machines. Until then, this place was really not like the places you remember.”
Mack said in 1957 the place became the first 24 hour establishment in the village.
“Ted, why did he…go into so much detail about the Maytags?”
“That’s his life…the real story of his life.”
She hung back, “People don’t care do they? People don’t want to hear the finer points of a life, do they?”
“No. People like neat, short, to the point history.”
“And they miss the Maytag model number.”
Ted opened the car door, “They miss the human factor that joins real life to fiction. Mack told us a number of important things about this village and his relationship to it.” Connie got in and Ted leaned towards her, “He told us that this small speck of civilization contains creative minds… and, life goes on around here 24 hours a day.”
How about the history of city landmarks that have changed with age? For example, a large section of Baltimore Street, The Block, near the inner harbor in Baltimore, was once the vaudeville, then strip club area known by merchant marine and military sailors around the world. It was also the centralized location for organized crime families. As late as the 1980s, when I would mention Baltimore to European sailors, they would bring up The Block. However, in 2013 I was talking to a man in his mid-thirties, born and raised just outside the city, about driving through downtown Baltimore and crossing The Block, and he had no idea what the term referred to. In the 2013 Building Block “The Block” I wrote: We have to consider how reader’s relevance can affect our writing. For example, many readers from Baltimore, Maryland have no understanding of the inference to the section of Baltimore Street, called The Block, in this sentence from the novel Simplicity Lane**: (action takes place in 1965) “For his part, Ricky had a real fear of Donatien, and cursed the day the two set out from The Block to locate where Kate had disappeared to.”
Thus, those ‘significant’ pieces of history that we remember, and take for granted, are not necessarily remembered or meaningful events in the mind of the reader. Here are some other historical items that people today may/may not understand the writer’s mental intent in mentioning them:
1931: The Christ monument built on Rio de Janeiro hilltop.
1935: Monopoly board game released by Parker Brothers.
1950: First modern credit card was introduced: Diners Club.
1970: The Beatles break up.
1971: United Kingdom changes to decimal system for currency.
1975: Former Teamsters Union leader Jimmy Hoffa goes missing.
1980: Pac-Man video game released.
Think about your ‘building blocks’; we can not write without them.
* Through a Stranger’s Eyes, © 2005 by Steven S. Walsky
** Simplicity Lane, © Steven S. Walsky, 2007.