A friend of mine is on a 1970s binge as he tries to finish a novel. It could be nostalgia. We’re both the same age and can remember seeing shows like Mannix and Cannon as young boys. The Rockford Files, however, looms larger in both our memories. We were preteens when it came out, so we probably both paid attention more to the television of the day.
Rockford was interesting because it started with an answering machine. High tech for those days when even the rich kids at school didn’t have VCRs. My friend says, however, that the seventies are a better time for writing crime fiction than today because Spenser or even Magnum can use Google to find things and call their clients back on mobile phones.
And yet the best crime novels I’ve read this year are two of SA Cosby’s works and Under Color of Law by Aaron Phillip Clark. All three are set in the present day. Cosby’s Southern locales and some of its cultural quirks were instantly recognizable from my early adult years in the Rust Belt. Neither Cosby nor Clark had any trouble adapting to cell phones or search engines.
I did run into some of this writing Holland Bay. When I started writing that novel, rock and roll still ruled music, making an uneasy peace with hip hop. Pay phones were a thing. Phones that played actual songs for ringtones cost one arm and one leg, and most people had laptops, not iPads. In one scene, Armand, the gangbanger having second thoughts about the life he’s chosen, finds himself dumped in front of a stadium. Realizing he looks like a homeless guy, he scams enough change to go down to the subway station and use a payphone. Only, I wrote the initial scenes in 2007 and finished the first draft in 2011. Putting the book away and taking time away from writing, I didn’t have a workable draft until 2013, and a presentable one until 2015. Then scifi happened, and I did not get the book published until late in the pandemic.
Guess what. There’s a payphone two blocks from my house. It’s a relic. I’m not even sure it has a dial tone. (Google it, kids. I’m tired of explaining a phone system I was never a fan of, anyway.) In 2010, psychopath Dmitri Reagan had a laptop still running an easily hacked version of Windows. By the time Holland Bay dropped in 2021, I had to make Dmitri the most tech unsavvy person on Earth, still using an old laptop, but it had to use Windows 7, still functional, but no longer supported. (Google Windows 7, kids. I’m tired of explaining it.) You can still buy burner phones, but they’re annoying to use, and anyone with a smart phone is going to have call screening in place.
Cannon, Mannix, and Rockford didn’t have mobile phones. They had to pull over at gas stations and drop a dime in a public phone. In Mannix’s day, the phone booth look like a transparent version of Doctor Who’s TARDIS. Even the price of a call is nostalgic. For most of my adult life, payphones cost either a quarter or fifty cents. And by the time I reached adulthood, we used calling cards and 1-800-DIRECT, as hawked by a then-funny Dennis Miller and ALF. (Google long distance and ALF, kids. I’m tired of explaining them.)
I don’t think it’s difficult to write in the present day despite having grown up in a time when you had to walk across nine feet of carpet to change the channel by hand like some kind of animal. When I was a kid, there was only seven anyway, eight when Channel 61 in Cleveland came back on the air, nine if Jim and Tammy Faye remembered to pay Ohio Edison to power Channel 17’s transmitter. We had cable, but we lived in a valley. Every town in valleys had cable. We never saw HBO until the 80s, and the only bonus, besides being able to watch the Cleveland Browns without snow in the picture was two Toledo stations carried to get around home team blackouts. (Even that’s not been a thing for about five years. Why are we spending all this money on stadiums again?)
And video chat? As kids, we were excited. You can see the person on the phone. Won’t that be great? Not really. I hate Teams. I hate Zoom. I seldom do video chat except for a couple of friends and podcasts. There’s lighting and sound and…
But I wrote a follow up to Holland Bay, most of which takes place in another part of Monticello. I had no problem getting Branson and the others into trouble while carrying cell phones and looking things up on the computer. She’s a cop. I don’t know if you noticed, but we pay cops to carry guns. You still have to physically investigate crimes. Meaning you have to cross town. Really, I may spend a lot of my life on the computer, but not all of it. In fact, I make it a point not to look at my phone while taking a walk. (Okay, I listen to audiobooks some nights.)
I do think it’s when we come of age. I am extremely fond of the early nineties despite unstable employment and confusion living in a new city. But who isn’t confused when they first leave home? Or even high school?
So what does that mean for the next follow-up for Holland Bay? Payphones will be relics. I’ll need to ask my stepson about music. (If you think that’s bad, I know a guy my age whose musical knowledge stops at 1989. Dude, you missed grunge, and what do you mean “Is Eminem big?”?)
On the other hand, nostalgia is a powerful tool for a writer.
Though I don’t see anyone getting nostalgic for the 2010s or the early 2020s.
One thought on “When?”
Reading a Cadfael novel now, so nostalgia for sleeping on a straw covered pallet and eating a bowl of boiled grain. There is a pretty inescapable draw to what you experienced in your teens, when the adult person started creeping beyond hormones. People are especially obnoxious about it with music (only the music from my high school years has any merit) but I think it sneaks into a lot of stuff. You think about this and not everyone can without tripping over their gut sense of right-wrong for oddly trivial stuff. Someday a movie of one of your books will have a flashback and then have “Present Day” across the screen for the main narrative. And like every movie that does that, it will look dated in a couple years. “Isn’t that a Pontiac?” “Damn their phones are ear pieces and not implants.”