Recently I started writing a novel set in the Jazz Age, 1925. Doing so has required me to get up close and personal with the period––not just familiarizing myself with history-book facts, but also the day-to-day details of ordinary life at that time. What did people wear, eat, read? What jobs did they perform and how did they entertain themselves in their leisure hours? What art did they enjoy, what music did they listen to? How did they travel and communicate with one another? And what words did they use to express themselves?
In a writing class I teach, several of my students are also writing period pieces. One person’s novel is set in the 1600s, another in the mid-1700s, and another in the early 1950s. Each presents the same set of challenges: how to write with authenticity and colorfully depict the era, while avoiding embarrassing goofs. Authentic writing means you don’t make assumptions. You don’t just guess and think your readers won’t realize you’re “all wet” (a Jazz Age term). I can promise you they will. For example, if you’re writing a story set in New England in 1879, don’t show your characters drinking orange juice for breakfast––oranges don’t grow in New England, and transporting them there wasn’t feasible at the time.
Just today, in fact, one of my students read a section from her book, set in the mid-1950s, and mentioned Wal-Mart. The problem is, Wal-Mart didn’t open its doors until 1962. The word “groovy” was another gaff, because as all you old hippies recall, the term became popular during the mid-1960s. But it’s not just amateur authors who make these sorts of mistakes. Stephen King once called a particular type of pistol a revolver when in fact, it wasn’t––and he heard about it from his readers.
So what’s a writer to do? The answer, in a word, is: research. Today, the Internet makes it incredibly easy to gather data of all sorts about any time period that interests you. Want to find out how people washed their clothes in ancient Greece? Or how stained glass windows were made in the Middle Ages? Or how the early American colonists furnished their homes? Google it. It’s all there, anything you want to know.
Here are some other tips:
• Visit museums and historical sites to see what sorts of utensils, clothing, furnishings, tools, etc. people used at different times.
• Read books written during the time period you’re writing about––you’ll learn about social customs and mores, language patterns, political and religious viewpoints, and a whole lot more.
• Peruse old magazines, newspapers, and catalogs. The Sears catalog is a terrific resource. Some of these publications can be found at libraries, others may be available through dealers of vintage literature.
• If possible, interview people who lived during that time. I had the good fortune to talk to a woman who was in her teens during the period in which my novel is set. I was able to ask her intimate details about women’s life at the time, things you won’t find in history books, such as what sort of sanitary materials did menstruating women use then, before the advent of tampons?
Lest you think research is a boring waste of time, I wish to suggest that researching your time period will immerse you more deeply and richly in your story, bring your characters to life, open your eyes to a world you couldn’t possibly have imagined, and inspire you to write better. Honestly, it’s a lot of fun, too. And when you find yourself in one of those “blocked” stages, research is the best way I know to jump-start your creativity.