Writing Before You Were Born
My forthcoming novel, ’til Death, takes place in the Tacoma, WA of 1951. But I wouldn’t call it a piece of historical fiction. As the tale of a funny, earnest young detective wannabe trying to make a career out of helping ghosts fleshed itself out, everything was so black & white, like a Cary Grant comedy, I couldn’t help but write the story in the past.
Subsequently I’ve spent a lot of time researching the time period and I thought I might share some of the more helpful resources:
5. Hit the Books
Read novels from the time period to get a sense for how people spoke. You’ll also pick up on taboos, fears, morals, and manners of the time. Try and avoid the error of reading your thoughts and beliefs into people in the past, as if you can take your friend Bill, put him in a searsucker suit, and call him a historical character.
Don’t be afraid to do the heavy lifting with history books, either. Of immense help to me was The Fifties by David Halberstam.
4. Listen to the Music
I’m listening to Sam’s Song by Bing Crosby as I type. It was the Billboard #4 song for 1950. I can see clearly Alice, a character from my book, tapping her feet and making dinner for her husband Frank to it, trying to keep up with Gary Crosby’s rapid lines as she goes. Listen to the music of your chosen time period, even if the recent past. How does it make you feel? How would your characters react when the radio played a favorite?
3. Watch Old Newsreels
Baltimore may be on your mind. Ferguson before that. What news was on the back of your character’s minds?
2. Watch Old Movies
This is similar to #5, but still worth putting up. By watching films made in your selected time period you can feel and hear cadences of speech and behavior. You might be writing a piece of fiction set well before the advent of Cinema, but I still would recommend watching some movies made about the time period. What you see is likely what your readers will expect — not that you should bend your story to meet popular expectations, but knowing will help you lead them along smoothly.
1. Talk to People Who Lived Back Then
How much was bus fare in 1949? If you were in Tacoma, would you call someone in Los Angeles, or send them a letter? What if it was urgent? Telegraph? How much did that cost?
I had no idea. But my grandmother and other seasoned saints at my Church sure did remember, and loved to talk about it. Take advantage of the living history in your midst while the day remains!