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Researching Novels: "A Fearful Thing"


"A Fearful Thing" Book Cover
A Fearful Thing

My new novel, A Fearful Thing, is the fifth novel in the Rebecca Series. It is set in the year 1985, four (fictional) years after the fourth novel, Choose You This Day. That means that most of the main characters, including Rebecca, are now in their early or mid-30s. That also means that the United States and England – the two national settings in most of my stories – are just starting their sprint toward the age of the worldwide web, of handheld electronic devices, and of near instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere in the world.


But they are not there yet, not in 1985.


So, to place this novel in that year meant a lot of research into the evolution of communications technology. For example, did you know that one of the first truly portable, practical “laptop” computers (that adjective had not yet been invented) was developed in Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Called the Epson HX-20, it was battery-powered and could easily fit into a briefcase. It had a keyboard and a memory bank, but could not be used for communication, because there was no internet.


I, of course, then researched the internet’s development, and found that in 1985 there was something called the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), a means of transmitting “simple” (short) messages without the use of existing telephone and other wireless methods. When Rebecca and her associates begin to suspect that their phone lines have been tapped – and they have – they are able to resort to the SMTP as an alternative means of communicating with each other, usually across the Atlantic Ocean.


The political and military context in 1985 comes into play, too. The U.S. and the then Soviet Union were still engaged in the Cold War that began shortly after World War II. In fact, the source of the major evil that blossoms in A Fearful Thing is a shadowy figure who works in the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC. My research into that embassy revealed that, while the embassy was under construction, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency dug a tunnel that, had it not been detected by the Soviets, would have allowed the CIA to place listening devices directly under the Soviet Embassy.


When the Soviets learned of this, they confronted the U.S., and the CIA’s plans were abandoned. However, that tunnel was completed by Soviet workmen and turned into a useful underground meeting and storage facility for the USSR.

And some of what I learned was funny. When I wrote that one of the women “undid her scrunchie” after she finished her workout, my copy editor, having researched everything in the manuscript to make sure my own research was accurate, informed me that the scrunchie was not invented until two years later. It was patented in 1987!


Who knew?


So many things were going on – or not going on – in 1985 that my copy editor and I did not know about until we started our research. And it seemed that every time we discovered something, the new information could be fitted perfectly into the plot of A Fearful Thing.


Sometimes stories almost write themselves. Usually, that’s because the characters’ preferences and personalities lead them in the directions the plot wants to go, but sometimes it is research into the historical details of an era that pushes into the story and begs to be inserted.


Real history is rarely dull. And, over and over, it has worked itself beautifully into the Rebecca series.



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