My Research Process: Making the 1920s Come Alive

31 Oct

Happy Halloween! I’m dressed as a flapper today, a passion that grew out of my research of the Roaring 20s.

KK suggested I write this post. If you want to make suggestions, please leave a comment here or on my Facebook Fan Page.

My first WIP is a YA novel that takes place in the 1920s. KK asked how I did my research for the time period and thought it would be some good information to share. I’m still in the middle of the process so I’ll share what I’ve done, but I know there’s still a long way to go!

  1. Watch movies and read books from that era. This is easier for some time periods than others. For me, it wasn’t bad. I’ve watched The Untouchables twice and called it research. I read another 20s YA novel called Vixin to see what extent of flapper life was YA friendly, and I’m reading another book now that covers the south in the 20s. Documentaries are also great, if you can stand them. These books and films will give you a good general feeling of the era and help you find a place to ‘put your head’ when you’re writing it.
  2. Find historical books and website (with plenty of pictures!). This is a must. Movies and books tend to stretch the truth a little. They are fictional, after all! Historical books will help you connect the mental image you’ve created with the facts you’re going to be dealing with. For example, The Untouchables shows Ness as a man of strong morals when history shows he had a drinking problem. The Great Gatsby movie might show flappers with headbands, but cloche hats were much more popular. Find some truth behind the fiction before you create your own and it becomes unbelievably fantastical.
  3. Research pop culture from that era. Was golf popular? How about cultural heroes? For my research, it’s bomber jackets and Lincolns, Lindbergh and Hemingway. Find out who it is for your characters. Also know what kind of vocabulary was used in your time period. Things weren’t ‘cool’ in the medieval era unless they had a colder temperature. No one comes ‘hither’ in the 1960s!
  4. Have a brief knowledge of what happened for the 20 years before yours takes place. The twenty years or so before your story will have a huge effect on your characters who likely grew up in that time (unless all of your characters are infants). Was there a war, a great tragedy, a change in government? I had to be careful of World War I because the father of my protagonist fought in it. I had to be sure her younger brother was born after the father returned. In my first draft, he wasn’t and I had to re-write to make him younger. Bomber jackets are popular because of the WWI style. The Volsted Act, prohibiting the sale of alcohol in the US, was set in place in 1920 so my characters in the mid teens don’t remember life before prohibition. It’s a good thing I did my research.
  5. Know if something big is happening in the rest of the world. You might be writing far enough back in history that this is moot due to the lack of international information but for those of us writing with any kind of radio or horse news transfer, it’s important. If there’s something going on in Europe, it will affect products, attitudes, and attentions in the US or vice versa.

From this starting point, you’re in a good position to start writing! There will be a ton of ‘one-off’ things to look up (how big were imported beer bottles from Canada in 1929?), but those can be solved with a quick Google search. Your friends and family will be wondering why you’re looking up ethnic immigration to Chicago in the late 1920s and watching a documentary on Tommy guns, but you can pass it off as research. (For the record, my best research was having a bartender make prohibition drinks for me at my brother-in-law’s wedding.)

Reader, please leave me a comment. How do you do research for historical fiction? Have any of these techniques worked for you? What more would you recommend?

Until next time, write on.

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7 Responses to “My Research Process: Making the 1920s Come Alive”

  1. Katherine October 31, 2013 at 1:45 PM #

    Love this! Really clear layout of different angles to take. I feel like usually I’d tackle ALL these ideas as “one-offs,” looking stuff up only when I felt I had to… but I really like the macro/micro balance of your process.

    Like

    • Sam October 31, 2013 at 1:47 PM #

      First of all, great topic idea, thanks for suggesting it! I’m glad you found this helpful. I started off as doing everything ‘one-off’ but I realized when I started doing general research that it became easier to write in the mindset of the 1920s. Now, when I read other 20s novels, I feel like an expert in the time, not just someone who knows a ton of singular facts.

      Like

      • Katherine October 31, 2013 at 2:40 PM #

        Now I’ve gotta figure out if there are books/movies that feature Bohemia in the late 19th century… : )

        Like

      • Sam October 31, 2013 at 3:03 PM #

        Best of luck!

        Like

  2. jazzfeathers June 26, 2014 at 9:06 AM #

    I’m writing a trilogy set in the Twenties and did much the same reserch as you. I watched a lot of silent movies too, and yeah… some are really dull, but some others are really good (I enjoyed ‘Underworld’ and ‘It’ particularly).
    I searched for lots of pictures from the time (there are some fantatic archives online) and oral history from people who lived the Twenties (again, the net is your friend here).

    I read many social histories about 1920s everyday life and about Prohibition specifically. Social history is what I enjoy the most, and sure, books repeat themselves when you’ve read more than two on the same subject, but you may always find a new detail that you need and especially, you enter in the mindset of the period, as you said.

    After four years, I’m still researching, and I’m still enjoyining it a lot 🙂

    Like

    • Sam June 26, 2014 at 9:14 AM #

      I’m glad to find a fellow 20s enthusiast! Now that I’ve got the basic plot of my book down, I’m going to start adding in the details I need: clothing, language, etc. and I know that means I’ll be back to the library to research!

      Best of luck on your project! A trilogy is very ambitious.

      Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tips for Writing Historical Fiction | Taking on a World of Words - November 25, 2013

    […] the period and everyday life in it. I think this is rule #1 and I discussed in a post about my own research process how I did this. It’s a good background and first […]

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