Tips for researching real life – and not nostalgia – for your historical novel – Juliet McDaniel

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By Juliet McDaniel

The lesson that sticks with me most from college wasn’t one I learned in a lecture hall, but rather the school’s cafeteria. During something called Spirit Week, the cafeteria was done up like a 1950s-styled soda shop, complete with milkshakes, poodle-skirts, and Elvis tunes. One professor who lived through the 1950s was appalled, pointing out how if this was truly a realistic portrayal of the time period, there was no way a divorced, single mom like me would be eating at a lunch counter with my two friends – a gay African-American man from Alabama and a Jewish man born in Russia. “Nostalgia is dangerous,” our professor insisted, “because it makes us forget the truth about where we’ve been.”♥

This stuck with me when it came time to write my first novel, Mr. & Mrs. American Pie, which is set at a housewife beauty pageant in 1970. It’s a comedy, but also one that addresses the rampant sexism and homophobia of the time. For my audience to feel what it was like to be a thirty-six-year old divorcee or a closeted gay man, I knew I needed my story to weigh more heavily towards real life than nostalgia.

Here’s what I learned along the way:

1.Newspapers show you the culture of the time and place. Knowing the factual history of a given time is obviously important, but it can overlook the impact the event had on people who weren’t directly involved. Newspapers do a better job of capturing the zeitgeist of a specific time and place. Letters to the editor can show a pattern of thought among everyday citizens in a single locale, as can the advertising. (Grocery adverts are fascinating!) You can also get a feel for the language that was used at the time to discuss specific topics. For example, in a 1970 newspaper article I found detailing the feminist protests to a local beauty pageant, the reporter referred to the unmarried women as “girls” and the married women as “wives.” That speaks volumes to the prevailing attitude of the time.

2. Get your hands on a cookbook! Especially if you are writing about women, finding a cookbook from the time period is essential. Until very recently, women’s worlds revolved around the home and cookbooks show exactly what their daily lives entailed. Aside from learning about historical eating habits, there’s also a lot that can be gleaned about the technology, economic conditions, and manners of the time. I have two cookbooks published by the same women’s church group in San Francisco. The one written in 1891 contains an entire section on delicious high-alcohol punches to serve at large gatherings. The one from 1905 has all of these recipes removed, thanks to the growing Temperance Movement.

3. Don’t be afraid to add in pop culture moments, but don’t be inaccurate. Peppering your scenes with specific songs, television shows, movies, popular novels, sporting and gaming events, and the like is a great way to set your reader in a specific place and time. Just keep things accurate, even if it means paying attention to picky little details. (This is doubly important if you’re writing about a culture that’s not your own.) If your story is set in 1987, don’t have all the kids talking in awe about Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics. Was everyone really doing the Charleston in 1926, or were the farm kids in Yorkshire into some other style at their barn dances? (Moreover, did they call them “barn dances?”) This is again where old newspapers can give you a sense of what everyone was buzzing about during a specific time and in a specific place.

4. Find a dictionary of slang and colloquialisms specific to your story’s setting. This is an invaluable resource for making sure your dialogue sounds authentic. A solid, scholarly dictionary will give you loads of historical context about not only what a specific term means, but where, when, and by whom it was used. (Plus, I’ve found it’s fun reading for Word Nerds like myself!)

The great thing about writing about the past in modern times is that just about everything can be found on the internet. There are thousands of newspapers archived for free at libraries or for a fee online. In the U.S., the most complete archives tend to be within the past 100 years. In the U.K., I’ve found collections going back much further, well into the 1700s. Project Gutenberg (Gutenberg.org) has an incredible collection of free ebooks, including hundreds of cookbooks from around the world. For pop culture tidbits, a quick Google search will answer even the most seemingly obscure question, like “what was on U.S. television on Tuesdays in 1969?” (I highly recommend “The Mod Squad” on ABC.)


Juliet McDaniel is the author of Mr. & Mrs. American Pie (published by Inkshares in the U.S. and U.K.). She has a B.A. in American Studies from Lake Forest College and a M.A. in writing from DePaul University in Chicago. Her other work includes writing the indie rom-com QWERTY. Juliet’s currently adapting Mr. & Mrs. American Pie for television.

julietmcdaniel.com

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