Before I start the post and because of a few recent questions that I loved, I’m happy to let you all know that I have a new book for kids coming out in October: Sparrows in the Wind. It’s a new take on the Greek myth of the Trojan War. Part One is told by Trojan princess Cassandra, who has the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed; Part Two is told by the Amazon princess Rin. A Greek chorus is spoken by three crows, Apollo’s sacred bird.
On February 8, 2021, Cara K wrote, My current W.I.P. is based in the 1950s, and I want to make sure that it is accurate to the time period. I have used many websites containing the ‘slang’ used back then, but I’m not sure if I’m using it correctly. Do you have any advice on how I can make my writing more accurate to the time period?
Two of you weighed in:
Katie W. wrote, There’s a series of three blog posts about historical fiction that might help, and if you know anyone who remembers the ’50’s, you could ask them. Or you could read books from that era, both fiction and nonfiction, to get a feel for the kinds of things they talked about and what their writing voices (and dialogue) sounded like.
Melissa Mead wrote, It’s a great way to get to know your relatives, if you have any from that era. You could also look for living history shows on YouTube. I just watched one that went “back in time” to the 1970s. Nothing like watching your childhood on a Past History show to make a person feel old.
Both Melissa Mead and Katie W. are recommending primary sources: interviews with people who were alive then (I was!), books, newspapers, magazines (including the ads), ancient television shows, etc. I just googled children’s books and YA books published during the decade. Treasures live in those books for contemporary writers!
If you do interview people who were alive in the ‘fifties, follow the proverb: Trust, but verify, especially if you’re talking to me. I’m vague about what was ‘fifties and what was ‘sixties. I’m not old enough to remember the ‘forties, but World War II was very alive in memory and popular culture when I was growing up.
Secondary sources can give us an overview. Who was president? What were the major current events for the year or years we’re writing about? How was the economy? On some bookshelf or other in our house is a coffee-table book that covers the whole twentieth century year by year, which I leaned on for my historical novel, Dave at Night, that’s set in 1926.
For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, I researched fifteenth century Spain, and the problem was not enough information. Records (except of the Inquisition whose clerks were obsessive about getting it all down) were lost or not kept in the first place. There were no newspapers and no photographs; people didn’t confide in diaries.
If we’re writing about the ‘fifties, we have the opposite problem. There’s too much. We can be overwhelmed. We can become fascinated (the risk for me) and lose ourselves for hours or days in reading material we’ll never need. We have to know at least the ballpark of what we need to find out.
I just googled ‘fifties slang. I hadn’t ever heard of half of it, and of the bits I knew, I was surprised they aren’t still used by everyone. Except for hep cat. Nobody says that anymore. So, some may be regional. Or I could just be ignorant. But I’d say the takeaway is to be sparing with slang. See what you encounter most often in your reading and interviewing and stick with that. For example, in early drafts of Dave, I used the word great as today (unless it’s changed) people are likely to say awesome. A friend told me great was too contemporary. The term in the ‘twenties would have been swell. Gratefully, I made the change.
Technology often gives rise to terms that, while not slang, tend to die out when the technology changes. For example, televisions proliferated in the ‘fifties, but they were still fairly new and the connection wasn’t always great. Static was sometimes called snow. The antenna on top of the TV set was sometimes called rabbit ears. Remotes were decades in the future, and snow would make people heave themselves up from their couches to move the ears around in hopes of improving the reception.
I bet there’s car technology that also yielded jargon of the decade.
And we need to remember that a lot changes from year to year. Language and outlook can change too.
When I was preparing to write Ceiling, I read a YA and a middle-grade book set in the Middle Ages: The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (high school and up), and The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz (okay for elementary school kids). I thought they were terrific. When I worried about the historical accuracy of my book, I looked at the Afterwards in each of theirs. Both Berry and Gidwitz apologized for any mistakes they may have made.
I did the same. Mistakes are inevitable. We just try to make as few of them as possible.
Here are three prompts:
- Here’s a link I found when I googled “1955 in history”: https://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1955.html. Pick something that happened then and write a short story of historical fiction. Or choose a different year.
- Your MC sets her time machine for sixty years in the future. She’s packed the latest personal technology, hoping some of it will be useful. Her jacket is made of microfiber. Her watch is digital. And so on. She’s so excited she hasn’t slept in three days and concentration is a problem. By accident, she sets the machine on sixty years in the past and clicks Go. Write what happens.
- Your MC spends a week in a medieval-fair reenactment and wakes up to find herself in thirteenth century England. Write what happens.
Have fun, and save what you write!