When I wrote my latest novel, Rembrandt’s Shadow, which alternates chapters set in 1999 with chapters following a painting’s provenance from 1616 to 1930. I feltl as though I was walking in a mine field of anachronisms on every page.
For instance, when were cell phones invented? My characters use them in 1999, and, yes, they were available then, but expensive. In fact, the first cell phones were released to the public in 1983 by Motorola and cost about $4,000. By 1999, they’d become smaller and somewhat more affordable, so it’s reasonable to suppose my characters had them, but they were telephones, not cameras and they didn’t come with apps.
Today, we google everything—and expect to find a website for every business and organization on the planet. Could my characters use Google in 1999? Developed in the mid 1990’s, Google had an index of about 60 million pages by the end of 1998. So yes, my characters could use google to some extent. But was it as good a resource as it is today? No.
For the chapters on the Rembrandt’s provenance, beginning in 1616, I had my 1616 character lighting a match to read a letter in the darkness. Oops. Matches weren’t developed until much later. I changed match to tinder box. But dress, customs, manner of speech, and so many other elements present new problems.
In this case, I turn to memoirs, biographies, and books on costume and history. Often town museums will carry some local resident’s memoir, full of tidbits from earlier years. When I was researching my historical novel, Shadow of the Rock, I had a difficult time finding any information about the history and culture of Morocco from 1780 to 1795. One book consistently cited in dissertations and bibliographies was a journal published in 1793 entitled, A Tour from Gibraltar by William Lempriere. This hard-to-find eyewitness account of 1792 Morocco was well-worth the $250 I spent to buy it from an antiquarian book dealer.
I’ve also used Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear and Mary Ellen O”Toole’s Dangerous Instincts in describing a predator approaching his prey. De Becker’s book was especially useful in setting up an assault scene in my book Shadow of the Rock.