Devil in the details

by , under research, technique, WWII

I have always been a stickler for period accuracy. I almost dismissed The Godfather  because there was somebody wearing 1970s glasses  in the party scene. It gets ridiculous. When Roger Sterling did his blackface song and dance on Mad Men, I was furious that they showed the drummer playing an 80s K Zildjian cymbal (though in later seasons they corrected this glaring error).

See what I mean? Maybe I ought to use a stronger word than “stickler.” I am sure that several other choice words come to mind.

But really, I am not alone in this. Looking at the review comments for such excellent shows as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, one can find immediately a huge number of people who fact check every tiny thing. When Al Capone calls Richard Harrow “Frankenstein” in 1922, would he have known that name? After all, it was just a book then, and Capone was not known as a reader. Also, the familiar image we hold in our minds of Boris Karloff with his heavy brow and bolted neck didn’t come about for another decade. So, no. Al Capone would certainly not have called him that. It stuck out like a Casio watch, especially since the rest of the show is so meticulous in every detail, especially language (Nucky asks what a “motherfucker” is and is told it’s a “jig word,” for example.)

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So the lesson here is that people do care, and people do check. My novel is set in WWII, and I try to make sure the details are correct in every respect, especially since the tale has some rather fantastic elements. One thing that is particularly difficult to verify is swearing. We hear that “fuck” was used  all the time, but since it was considered an unprintable word, it is difficult to verify. Certainly the printed word was cleaner back in those days, but was the language of soldiers?

By relying on first-hand accounts from such authorities as Eugene Sledge and Paul Fussell (the former in an superb interview with Studs Terkel, available online), I was able to determine that soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen were indeed every bit as foul-mouthed as their current counterparts.  That said, certain slang terms and speech patterns were harder to pin down. For those, I relied on “man-on-the-street” interviews from the period, letters from soldiers home and even movies. I have really tried as much as possible to be authentic about the setting. Nothing jars me out of a narrative like sloppy language (case in point was the otherwise excellent Deadwood, which used modern slang because the creators thought the archaic language wouldn’t make sense to modern viewers, a point disproved by the remake of True Grit.)

Don't just stand there.