The Bee’s Knees & the Cat’s Pyjamas: Researching my Next Book

the-cat-s-pajamasI’m used to having to do research for a book. My second book, If I Should Lose You, featured a heart transplant surgeon as the main character – obviously I’m no expert in transplanting hearts, so interviews and other kinds of research were vital. But the book I’m writing now is a big leap for me – it’s set in New York in the 1920s and 30s and I definitely have no first hand experience of that time!

I knew when I began writing that I would have to do lots of research, but I didn’t realise how many small things would come up that I would need to investigate. Here’s a list of some of these small, relatively inconsequential – but hugely important if I get them wrong! – things I have wondered about, and had to research so far – and I’m only 15,000 words into the book!

  • Motor cars – when did motor cars become commonplace in New York and urbanised areas of Massachusetts? How likely would it be that an upper class, but not stonkingly rich, family would have a motor car? Would they drive be likely to drive it from Concord, Massachusetts to New York City, or would they catch the train?
  • Electricity – when did electricity become usual in homes and streets? What kinds of small household appliances were available and popular at that time? (by the way, the vacuum cleaner was the first small home appliance to really take off in the 1920s)
  • Forms of address – when did people start addressing each other by their christian name, especially upon first meeting them? Did this differ by age and social class?
  • Clothing – when did the flapper look become common-place among women? When did hemlines creep up and by how much? When would most women have begun to crop their hair, smoke and drink in public?
  • To what extent did young women have the freedom to visit a city if they were from a semi-urban area a couple of hundred of miles from the main city?
  • When did cabs become commonplace in New York? Was the subway in existence then? How did people get around the city?

As you can see, none of these questions are about pivotal story moments or instances of character development. But if I know the answer to these questions, then the story I’m writing becomes more seamless; I don’t want to jar someone out of the fictive dream I’ve (hopefully!) created by having one of my characters use an electric hairdryer when no such thing existed – curling tongs, on the other hand, did.

Luckily the 1920s in America has been written about a lot, as the pile of books in the pictureIMG_0318 accompanying this blog will attest to. And luckily there are novels around like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, published and rather scandalously received in 1920, to give me a flavour for dialogue and turns of phrase – the bee’s knees was a biggie back then, it seems, and how I love using that! Along with the cat’s pyjamas, hotsy-totsy and a spot of necking.

So that’s a bit of a sneaky peek at the book I’m working on and the rather fun research that’s been filling my days. Next week, I’ll be talking all about my brand new discovery and current love of my life, a tool that has made writing this book so much easier and revealed to me a few things about the way I write that I had never noticed before. Curious? I hope so …

In the meantime, any hot tips about 1920s New York? Or if you’ve researched a book, what small and seemingly inconsequential things did you have to investigate to ensure all the details were spot-on?

18 comments

  1. Glen Hunting

    Hi Natasha,

    You’ve probably already got some material on this, but these are my thoughts off the bat:

    Ford’s and Chevrolet’s were your average ‘entry-level’ transport in the ’20’s and ’30’s, and remained so up until the late 60’s, when it started to get more ambiguous. Ford Model T’s were made up to 1927, Model A’s from ’27 until ’32, Model B’s from ’32 to ’34, and V8’s from ’32 onwards. Gangsters and bootleggers loved the V8’s because they could out-run anything else in the same price bracket. Dodge’s, Buick’s and Oldsmobile’s were a bit more up-market, but still ‘middle-class’. If a family was rich, they probably would have had a Packard. If they were REALLY rich, they might even have had a Cord or a Duesenberg. Unless, of course, they imported from Europe, although that didn’t become common until after WW2. But there was also local manufacture of Rolls-Royce’s in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1921 onwards.

    Evelyn Waugh has the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies saying “Too, too sick making” or “Too, too shame making,” and so forth. But that expression might have been confined to the UK, if not London itself.

    You haven’t forgotten to make mention of the 1929 Wall Street crash, have you? And prohibition?

    • Thank you Glen, that is GOLD! One of the things I find least interesting is reading about car makes and now I don’t have to because you’ve distilled into a few sentences something that I know at least one of the books in my pile has taken a whole chapter to discuss. So that is perfect. See, I knew that by putting it out there, I’d find people who knew stuff that I need to know. Thank you!

  2. Glen Hunting

    Forgot to mention Cadillac’s and Lincoln’s too, for the well-heeled…

  3. marlish glorie

    I admire your capacity for research Natasha! One of the terms I’ve always been fascinated with is when New York City is described as the Big Apple. The Big Apple came into use in the early 1920’s, died, then resurfaced in the early 70’s. The term’s source is vague…but from what I can ascertain it was used primarily in the horse racing world. The big apple being the creme de la creme of the horse racing circut.

  4. Ariel Armarego-Marriott

    The Costumer’s Manifesto (http://www.costumes.org/history/100pages/1920links.htm) might be a good place to start when looking for historical fashions. There’s also a book by the Hutton Getty Picture Collection called ‘Decades of Fashion’ which contains photos from more than just the upper classes. I wonder if the US has digitalised any/many of their newspapers like the National Library of Australia has.

    I had great fun researching passenger routes and times between Fremantle and Guildford and Guildford and Albany around the turn of the century.

    • Thanks Ariel, that’s terrific. I had no idea about the Costumer’s Manifesto but that will be a great resource. I will look out the other book you’ve suggested too. I really appreciate you taking the time to stop by and pass on that information to me – thank you!

  5. annabelsmith

    I must admit, I sometimes find researching dull, but this sounds pretty interesting. Especially the fashions – I love twenties fashion.

  6. That sounds like fun research! Look forward to reading the finihsed product 🙂

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