Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vanishing Voices from the Past

Barbara here. Today I was reading a friend's Facebook posts about the recent mystery conference, Bouchercon, and it struck me once again what an extraordinarily different world we inhabit now compared to that of my childhood, let alone my mother's. Today with a few clicks of a button we can capture moments in words or images, and send them all around the world to people we may never have even met. Today, we write about our travels, our surgeries, our dinner parties and our triumphs large and small, in blogs, text messages, Facebook posts and even 140-character tweets. All instantaneous, all fleeting.

When I was a child, the diary was the thing. Every girl had a diary, usually with a frilly pink cover and a little gold key that was supposed to protect our private musings from prying maternal eyes. I had one, but most of the time it languished in my drawer. I wasn't very good at the "Dear Diary" confessions. But I did write a detailed diary during the trips I took as a child, and I wrote letters home from camp. I hope these childhood records are still stashed in a box in my mother's storage locker.

Much of the daily chatter between friends and family was carried out by phone, however. Not the ubiquitous cellphone that keeps us in constant contact today, but a clunky (usually black) rotary phone with the curly 25-foot cord that allowed us to drag the phone from the hall into the privacy of our room. Those conversations were lost in space the moment they were uttered. In my mother's childhood, when almost no one even owned a telephone, letters served as the medium of exchange. People wrote delightful, chatty letters to friends, family, lovers, etc. as a way of keeping in touch and sharing their thoughts. Over a lifetime, letters served as a valuable insight into that life.

There is much to mourn in the demise of the letter and the diary besides the loss of permanent records. Because of the ease of the internet and the computer, people communicate with more people and more often than they did before. Much has been said elsewhere about how relationships have changed as a result - more relationships but less true closeness, hundreds of friends but fewer real ones - but here I only want to mention how much more difficult it has become for writers. Especially those of us who kill for a living.

Many books have at their core an old secret or a historical event that still casts a shadow over the present. Murder is so much more deliciously complex when its roots lie deep in the past and must be uncovered before the mystery can be solved. Writers use different techniques to tell that history, such as court transcripts, newspaper clippings, or an oldtimer's reminiscences.  But there is nothing quite as personal and as intimate as letters found in the attic, or a diary hidden in the victim's closet. I used a diary in Honour Among Men, newspaper clippings in Beautiful Lie the Dead, and most recently old letters in The Whisper of Legends. 

In ten year's time, there will be precious few letters and diaries through which to tell our stories. Yes, our sleuth can read blogs and troll through Facebook posts and emails but that will give access only to the near past. But at the present rate of change in technology, even twenty years into the past will be out of reach. As an example, I have stored in the back of my desk whole boxes of 5 1/4 inch floppy discs with documents on them in some extremely primitive version of Word Perfect, as well as stacks of the more modern 3 1/2 inch floppies. I suppose it is still possible for a enterprising sleuth to cart a box of floppies to a special electronics museum and get them translated into a format he can read. But today even those tangible representations don't exist. Emails disappear when the recycle bin is emptied. Text messages, tweets, posts and blogs may be archived for a short time before being wiped from existence when the blog or website is taken down.

Gone then is a wonderful channel through which a writer can introduce the characters and events of the past. Either we will all have to get very inventive...

Or we will have to turn to writing historicals.


LD Masterson said...

When my mother passed away, my dad gave my boxes of photograghs from when they were young. Many were faded or cracked, but on the back someone had added a note or comment. Some identified subject, place, and/or time, but others were just a personal note - i.e. "Hi Honey. Wanted to show you my new coat. I miss you."

How does my flash drive filled we digital photos compare with that?

Barbara Fradkin said...

You are so right! And perhaps in 40 years' time, no one will be able to read the flash drive anyway. I do believe we risk losing our social history.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, our family had a "round robin" started in the 1930s. It was mailed from one family member to another. When it arrived we would take out our old letter and write a new one and send the Robin flying. The elderly Aunt Mafia came down fiercely on anyone who delayed the Robin.

I just wish we had kept all those old letters reporting triumphs and disasters and wee moments of happiness. What a treasure for sociologists!