Do Your Research

A New Experience)

Last week I broke ground with the first chapter of my new story. I’ve previously discussed the intersection of fiction and real-world references, and how I’ve always tried to minimize those connections in my own stories. At least, I tried to minimize them until last week, where I delivered a work of both fact and fiction inseparably connected as one.

In that new story we meet Ed Cole, the real-life president of General Motors, sitting in the front seat of a 1977 Impala Coupe, the real-life car made by Chevrolet, and he is referencing all sorts of events that really happened in that period of time. However, the actual meat of the story is about Ed Cole getting an automobile designer to appreciate the burden of creativity, and that narrative is entirely a work of fiction. I made up the character of Burt Mackie and every word of the conversation he has with Cole.

And it was that core story that got me into this project in the first place. I had heard about how automotive companies predict how many of their new model will sell, how many accidents it will be involved in, and how many fatalities will occur, and that brought to mind the plot I described above. This was the story I wanted to tell, but now I had to find a setting to place it in.

My initial thought was to make up the characters entirely, as well as the brand of vehicle, but I thought that might be distracting. If I wrote my story about the 1988 Altoyus Roamer, I think several readers would be wondering why I had made those names up. So, I decided to do some research, looking for a car model that had revolutionized the automotive industry in its time. Before long I identified the 1977 Chevrolet Impala as an ideal candidate, and now it was time to learn everything I could about it.

The Fear and the Cure)

My greatest hesitation to including real life characters and events in my works of fiction is that I might get some details wrong. If I write about a Dark Wizard using a previously unknown spell to close the portal to the eighth dimension you might disagree with my plot decisions, but that’s a subjective disagreement. When I misspell a historical character’s name or mess up a date, though, I have made an objective error. Combine that with the fact that I am not at all a “car guy,” and I started having some serious misgivings about this whole project.

What finally convinced me to continue, though, was that the more I read about the 1977 Chevrolet Impala, the more interested I became in the subject. I learned all about the 1973 Oil Crisis, where a coalition of Arabian countries declared an oil embargo against the United States for its involvement in the Yom Kippur War. The automotive industry was hit particularly hard, and suddenly there was huge demand for cars that used less oil and fuel than usual.

This crisis also provided a great opportunity, though. Chevrolet had always done well in its large-sized vehicle lineup, but it had never been able to get its foot in the door of commuter vehicles. In 1970 it looked like they might succeed with the Vega, but glowing initial reviews soon gave way to a bevy of safety and performance recalls. With the advent of the oil embargo every automotive company was rushing to redesign their lineup of consumer offerings, and Chevrolet saw a second chance to capture a slice of the market.

Project 77 was born, a plan to restructure the entire suite of Chevrolet Impala vehicles, making them 800 pounds lighter, running on smaller engines, and therefore being more fuel efficient than ever before. It was a tall order, but the design team was able to come up with a coupe, a sedan, and a station wagon that met all the requirements and were met with public acclaim. The new Impala lineup launched Chevrolet right to the front of the pack and it became the prototype for their consumer vehicles for another decade!

It is a good story. In fact, I would very much enjoy if someone made a film or a documentary to chronicle it. It isn’t really the story that I am trying to write, but it’s still a captivating backdrop for the tale I did want to tell.

Making Things Up)

Of course, not all of these details are making their way into my story. I tried to include as many of them as I could, but I had to limit myself to only the information that was related to the scene I’m writing.

I also had the opposite problem, too. Some of the data that my story does need I wasn’t able to find. I wanted more information about the safety levels of cars in that era, and also how many accidents the cars were anticipated to be involved in before launch. Search as I might, though, I couldn’t find any clear answers to these questions.

So, in the case of safety performance, I took what information I could find, and extrapolated what was likely. I found that cars at the start of the 70s collapsed like an accordion at 30-35 miles per hour, and from that I made the assumption that a car in the latter half of the 70s might hold up until 40 miles per hour. I might be a little off with that figure, but hopefully near enough that I won’t ruffle any feathers.

And as for the number of accidents the Impala was anticipated to be a part of, I sculpted the conversation to keep that aspect vague. Over 600,000 Impalas were sold in its first year, and hundreds of thousands more in the following years. So, I had Ed Cole say “Project 77 is going to put millions of cars across the country in the next decade. But millions of cars sold means thousands upon thousands of accidents.” By dealing with quantities as broad as “a decade” and “millions of cars,” it became a pretty safe bet to say they would be expecting “thousands” of accidents. “Thousands” can range anywhere from 1,000 to 999,999 after all!

In Summary)

Having gone through this experience I know appreciate that some stories just need to be set in a real-life context, referencing historical persons and events, even when they are strictly a work of fiction. I also came to understand that my greatest fear in referencing historical events is my fear of getting things wrong. Fortunately, I also found that digging into the subject material can become exciting in its own right. which will fuel my passion to write about it. Finally, I discovered some ways to fill the holes in my research while minimizing inaccuracies as much as possible.

This has been a rewarding experience. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point I try to write an entire narrative based on historical research. But if so, that’s a story for another day.

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