Totally Awesome Book Research 


My current manuscript it the first in a series that takes place between the summer of 1991 through 1999. While the series encompasses the decade of the  1990s, the first book is set in the summer of 1991 and has more in common with the 1980s so I’ve been reading contemporary novels set in that era.

I read The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell of “Sex and the City” fame. Set in the early 1980s, this prequel is not a “clean”, read but the teenage Carrie Bradshaw is a more innocent girl than one would expect. It’s set in an unspecified year in the early 1980s, a bit too early to be applicable but still a fun read.

I just finished Eleanor and Park  Rainbow Rowell. It takes place in Omaha in 1986-87. While it’s four years earlier than my manuscript, the blue-collar, Midwestern setting was spot on. Everything from a lack of alternative radio stations and the sketchy independent record store to the  attitudes of Eleanor and Park’s classmates was so similar to my setting.

It’s been a while, but I listened to The Time Travel’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It’s probably the closest to my story. The heroine is within a year or two of my main characters’ age, she’s from an upper class family (far more privileged than my heroine), it’s set in the Midwest, and the hero has a supernatural medical condition that makes a romantic relationship difficult (at least in his mind). The beginning timeline matches within a year or so of my timeline (early 1990s).

Forever Laila by Melissa Turner Lee is another book very similar to The Time Traveler’s Wife with biological time travel and a 1990s setting. It too had points that dovetailed well with my story.

The challenge of books set in the recent past is that tiny anachronisms are amplified because people are alive to remember those years.

I almost gave up on Eleanor and Park because there are a couple of lines that hint Park’s dad was a Korean War vet even though he would have been a tween in the early 1950s. Fortunately, it was a matter of semantics, a couple of chapters later it explained that Park’s dad was a Vietnam era veteran stationed in Korea.

Yes, two lines nearly derailed a book for me. Details are so important. Something that’s so accurate brings a smile of understanding like Eleanor writing Smith’s lyrics on her notebook. I had a college classmate who did that, well it was Morrissey’s solo lyrics by then (circa 1993), but still I nodded. I got it. This story was drawn from an experience at least tangentially common to mine.

I’ve come across similar things in my own research. In my original timeline (set in 1990-91), I couldn’t use Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Man because it hadn’t been released for the scene I was writing. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can’t appear in this version because it wasn’t released until September 1991. In one of my drafts, I referred to Jay Leno and a critique partner asked if he was on then. Nope. It was still Johnny Carson although Leno was a regular guest host. Leno didn’t take over until 1992. Thankfully, that mistake was caught, and I learned my lesson on thorough research.

Have you ever read a book that didn’t get an era, location, or other detail right? If so, how did affect your opinion of the book and/or the author?


About Gretchen E K Engel

Chemical engineer by day, spec fiction writer by night

17 comments on “Totally Awesome Book Research 

  1. I read a book that took place in the 400s/500s in Britain and there was a line about the autumn leaves falling like russian ballerinas. Even though it wasn’t a thought a character had, it pulled me out of the time period and made me laugh.

  2. This reason is why I am incapable of reading My Little Pony fanfiction. I grew up reading the Black Stallion books, and if anybody knew how to write horses–their movements, their behavior, the feel of them–it was Walter Farley. The people writing MLP fanfic know nothing about horses. NOTHING. I tried to explain to a friend about the pastern joint, and how you can’t draw horse hooves without understanding it. She had no idea what I was talking about.

    Same deal with werewolves. I ingested all the great wolf books alongside my horses. The whole Alpha thing in modern werewolf books is maddeningly inaccurate. Not to mention the way their animal forms behave.

    Insert gnashing of teeth here.

    • Out of curiosity, Kessie, have you read the Lunar Chronicles? And if so, how did Marissa Meyer do with her description of alpha wolves? If it was wrong, what was wrong about it? (I didn’t read a lot of animal based books growing up, so when I read alpha, I think of what little information I’ve gleaned over the years from various sources and I feel like the concept of alpha in Scarlet and subsequent books was accurate.

      • I read the first Lunar book (Cinder), but not the rest. I’m talking about the way alphas work in Twilight and that ilk–the psychic leader of the wolves who can communicate telepathically with his pack. And also there’s this magic mate-bond between a dude and a chick (or a couple of dudes, if you’re reading that particular branch). They see each other, and their inner animals realize that this is their Soul Mate, and they instantly go in for hawt sexytimes. It’s like this hand-waving for insta-love. IT’S MADDENING.

    • I get this. There’s a well-known author who wrote about a medical condition that is wildly inaccurate. I cannot read this author anymore.

  3. Yes! That would have pulled me out too. I watched a couple of episodes of “The Carrie Diaries”. It’s pretty good and accurate, but they made a reference to Prince Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker Bowles. The series is set in 1984, so even if it was happening then, the characters probably wouldn’t have known that. It was still the “perfect royal family” era. It didn’t ruin the series, but I see things like that a lot. Highlighting what eventually happens with a skewed perspective. Also there’s a tendency to lump the entire decade together so you have feathered bangs (early 80s) with acid washed jeans (mid-late 80s).

  4. Having dislocated my shoulder a few times, I am always irritated when it happens to a character in an exciting situation and then they can STILL fight / run / do anything much at all. Yes, it is a low-consequence injury that is fairly easy for a medic to fix, but until that joint is back in, you’re not getting off of the ground. Unless of course you have unnaturally elastic muscles and can put it back in yourself, which is always a possibility in a speculative story…but still has to be based on somebody’s existing ability!

    • I wondered about that. I always assumed it was significantly more painful than books depict. The worst I’ve done is run on a mildly sprained ankle. That was shockingly easy to do.

    • My hubby dislocated his shoulder once – it popped out and back in, fracturing his humerus – definitely not a “shake-it-off” injury.

    • The other possibility is a higher than average pain tolerance, but it’s something that could be hinted at earlier in a story. With a shoulder, as long as the character can’t use the arm, I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve walked — slower than normal, but not tremendously gimpy — with a dislocated knee, but my pain tolerance is high. I’ve also had a muscle in my forearm punctured completely through but didn’t notice it for a while. Adrenalin can do weird things.

  5. I gave up on The Green Mile because the god king has southerners cussin’ lak (censored)yankees insteaduh good old boys ‘n evun kawls skeeters no see ums which ain’t exactly Dixie.

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