I’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 picture 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?