Over the weekend, I happened to read a contemporary romance. The writing was well done and I was really enjoying the story when the details pulled me out. She had gone into the recent past, given a named date, made a cultural reference and my suspense of disbelief was shattered. The reference was to a character in a Disney film which appeared in 1994. The time in the story was supposed to be 1991. I went and looked it up because it had been one of my children's faves and I could remember how old my eldest was when it appeared and wondered -- did I get it wrong? There were a few other references that then had me wondering and in the end, I didn't enjoy it as well as I could have done as it seemed sloppy. The writer in question is particularly known, according to Donald Maass, for her sense of place and her use of detail to really create that place. So while I was reading for enjoyment, I was also reading for enlightenment.
When you have a named date, you do need to check that books, movies etc have appeared by that time and what was known about the author. This is important in the first half of the nineteenth century when pen names were often used. For example, Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre in 1847 as Currer Bell and it wasn't until after her brother and sisters' death in 1849 that she was persuaded to reveal her identity. Saying that a character was reading Charlotte Bronte in 1848 wouldn't work as she would have been Currer Bell. Equally a charater could not have been certain that she was even a woman. When you are writing about the past even in an extended flashback, a character can only know what was known at the time.
I do slightly blame the copy editor as she should have queried the reference. The author in question might have been told to change the date in revisions and forgot to change the reference. These things happen. She is a good storyteller and a NY Times bestseller. It is a measure of her story-telling that I did finish the book. However, I will be a bit wary the next time one of her books comes out.
Details really give a sense of time and place but they are a dual-edged sword as they can pull readers out. As a writer, you have to check and check again, particularily if you alter the date. You owe it to the reader. It is good when I get a reminder.