Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rummage-y Bits: Eccentric Places to Find Vivid Research Details

When I set out to write or read historical fiction, I am not content with merely hoping the plot (set in a certain era) will show well against the era. I want the era to be smashed into the plot like bananas into the peanut butter of a peanut-butter-banana sandwich. I don't actually know if I like peanut-butter-banana-sandwiches, but the image of smashing historic detail into your characters and scenes as you'd smash a banana into peanut butter (with a fork) was a little too tempting to deny. When have you ever known me to care about conventional associations? But sometimes it can be hard to actually find those historical tid-bits that will mix vividly with your setting. Obviously, one could cruise the back-pages of Google (frightening thought, that) for months and perhaps would finally settle on the Fountain of Youth of historical detail. On the other hand, many of us don't have months to cruise the back-pages of Google. I know I feel let down by modernity when I have to travel to Google's second page. It's abyss. But we are good authors and we know when our details flop. The committed among us refuse to let our work accordion-fold with the half-baked historic flavor. So what's a well-meaning Peanut-Butter-Banana-Sandwich-Seeking author to do? Here are some of my favorite ways to find the Rummage-y Bits that make a setting pop:

1.) Check lyrical music of the era: when I want to know about 1930's pop-culture, what better place could I look for it than in a Broadway show like Anything Goes with lyrics by Cole Porter and, yes, P.G. Wodehouse? This musical happens to have been a contemporary show when it was written (1934), and has a song called "You're the Top" that basically swims with pop-culture references which makes it invaluable for knowing what sorts of things were being talked about in that raggedy, glamazon era:
"You're the top!
You're the Coliseum,
You're the top,
You're the Louvre Museum,
You're a melody
from a symphony by Strauss,
You're a Bendel bonnet,
a Shakespeare's sonnet
You're Mickey Mouse!
You're the Nile,
You're the tower of Pisa,
You're the smile
On the Mona Lisa,
I'm a worthless check,
a total wreck, a flop
but if Baby, I'm the bottom,
You're the top!

2.) Read memoirs: Not particularly memoirs by overly-famous people. I have found some of my favorite details for Anon, Sir, Anon through a a site for Northants who want to post memories of growing up in the 1930's in Northamptonshire. In fact, one of these memoirs is where the incredibly thick Northant fogs came up and gave me a cloaking-spell for the murder scene! Memoirs are different from biographies in that they are more than likely written by normal people of the era, and normal people remember normal things...normal for that time period, that is. And these normalcies can be the key to blowing readers' minds with a bit of historical writing.

3.) Pay attention to fashion: what were people wearing in that day and age? No one likes long, drawn-out descriptions of clothing, but it is true that people in the "old days" didn't dress like us, and a casual mention of a pair of gloves, the train of bustled skirt getting in someone's way, a hat being left on a train seat, or a certain perfume only enhances the reading experience.

4.) Check out newspaper ads: what were people selling? What were they buying? What advertisement jingles were thrusted into the consciousness of your characters? Say, "And what are you wearing, 'Jake from State Farm'?" today and most people will get the reference. Why not search for something in that vein that you could throw into your story-world?

5.) Look at artifacts from the period at a museum, if possible: find an artifact that captures your interest and make it a part of your plot. Perhaps it's a certain pipe on display at a WWII exhibit in one of the DC Smithsonians. Can you make that pipe belong to your MC's father? And if you want to be masochistic about it, can you have someone crush that pipe (on purpose) in your MC's presence later, further rubbing in the fact that his father was a Jew and killed on Kristallnacht? Or maybe you find a striking photo of an artifact buried on the ruins of Pompeii that wants to make its way into your Roman-seasoned fantasy novel. Swing it however you want, but use a tangible object to churn your inspiration. Your descriptions will ring true because they will be true. Some of the easiest writing I ever did was in The Windy Side of Care. Why? Because I had a tangible person on whom I based the character of Alisandra. Her personality was one thing I didn't have to fabricate.

6.) Substitute pop-culture for generalities: when I wrote certain lines in Anon, Sir, Anon, I often stopped a moment and chose a crimson reality as a replacement for the beige generality of which I had originally thought. Example? I mentioned something about Vivi's emotion-choked nerves rivalling a soprano's in pitch (or something. I forget exactly). Instead of leaving it as "a soprano," I did a quick Google search for the top ten famous sopranos in the 1930's and chose one on the list. Thus, "her nerves sang a higher pitch than a soprano," became something like, "her nerves sang a higher pitch than Lotte Schone," and what had been a graham-cracker sentence  tottering against a cardboard house suddenly had the banana smashed in.

However you find your details, commit to finding them. The readership does appreciate it. And if you have any "eccentric" ideas of your own for finding the Rummage-y Bits, please share them in a comment below! I'm always looking for new ways to bring my settings to life.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

Definitely agree with the bit on memoirs! I've read some fascinating ones that really opened a window on the time and place (and some of the best were fairly little-known books, too). Diaries and collections of letters are also good.

I would also add to this list, read books that were written and set at the time you're aiming for—books that were contemporary at the time. It's great for getting a feel for the way people thought and spoke and acted, at least viewed through the lens of the author writing the book. There's often a lot of throwaway everyday details mixed in there too, things that were just a matter of course to the writer at the time, but can be helpful in getting to feel at home in the time period now!

Newspaper and magazine ads are like a time machine. It's fascinating not only to see the things being advertised, but the way they were advertised—it gives you a sense of people's mindset and what sort of products and experiences they were looking for.

Lady Bibliophile said...

I found an old book online of the life and times of the town I set my story in during the exact year it took place.

It felt like cheating, almost. But it was an awesome resource.


Abbey Stellingwerff said...

Oh, brilliant post! I've always had trouble researching, but these ideas are great! I never thought of looking at song lyrics, but they do give a lot away. Thank you!

Rachel Heffington said...

Elisabeth: That is a good idea. I mean, that's the thing about contemporary DOES slip in and I am so very glad it does. :)
Schuyler: LUCKY DUCK. That is certainly not cheating! You simply hit oil.
Abbey: they do. Sometimes they don't, but sometimes they DO.

Esther Brooksmith (wisdomcreates) said...

One word: Grandparents!
Rachel already knows this trick and used it on Fly Away Home. Find people from an older generation to talk to. They have stories from their own lifetimes as well as stories passed down to them from THEIR parents.

Sarah Cnossen said...

Excellent ideas! And so very helpful. I love the visual with the peanut-butter and bananas. ;D

Question: Would you consider writing in the era's dialect as it would have been spoken then? For example, using Old English spellings and phrases and such in the story or could that somehow be far too confusing for the reader? I am simply curious. (Hope that made sense...) :]


Rachel Heffington said...

Sarah: I would use it sparingly. For instance, in Anon, Sir, Anon, there is one appearance of a character who speaks intense local dialect which is nearly indecipherable to the other characters. Yes, technically every character who is a native from that area would have spoken thus, but I chose to relegate it to one character and lightened the load to a word here and there for the others. It doesn't overwhelm the reader and is more of a suggestive thing than in-your-face.
George MacDonald overwhelmed the readership with Scotch dialect in his Scottish novels...nearly unreadable unless you are SO DETERMINED. So that's my opinion: use it like salt.

Joy said...

So good! I love this post, Rachel, being the history-writing buff that I am, and it is an element in your stories that I am especially fond of. Gee, I remember the days I did most of research via google - it worked, in my fix of utter ignorance, and I gleaned long and hard but there were sure better ways to learn about Roman emperorers and their prefects than through outdated HTML websites!

You mentioned memoirs, and I so agree! They're so useful. The other time I borrowed a book from the library called "Blitz boy" which was the memoir records of an ordinary Londoner in 1939/1940. It was so, so helpful!

Also as Elisabeth pointed out, reading books (novels and nonfiction) contemporary in writing to era you desire is a splendid way to learn history trivia and get a subconscience hang of how people wrote and spoke, and the turn of their phrases and idioms. For my WW2 novel, it has been amazing what sort of beneficial stuff I have gleaned simply from C. S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy or Tolkiens' letters, or Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

Fun post!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rachel. This is SO helpful! I've been tossing around the idea of writing a story set in the 1930's, but I wasn't sure where to start in terms of research. Thanks again!!

Rachel Heffington said...

You are so welcome, Sara! Glad it was helpful. :)