The Stuff and Flavor of a Different Time

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I just did something a little strange: I ordered a circa 1919 Montgomery Ward catalog on eBay.

It’s particularly unusual for me since I often take a free moment to call catalog companies and tell them not to send me their glossy pages of wares. I am the opposite of a shopper. I am a chucker. I like less stuff, not more.

(When my teenage daughter and I were helping my mother pack up for a move to a smaller place, I whispered to her, “Don’t worry, when my time comes, I won’t have this much stuff.”

“Oh, Mom,” she said shaking her head, “by then you’ll be living out of a backpack.”)

But I need this particular catalog because I just started a new novel. It’s historical fiction, set  in 1919, and I need to know about the stuff.

So far, all my novels have taken place squarely in the present. But when I finished my most recent novel last spring, and began to think about the next project, I didn’t have a clear idea of the story I wanted to tell. So I started taking a look at stories that have spoken to me, were memorable, entertaining, inspiring, edifying in some way.

One night my family decided to watch the movie A League of Their Own, which is based on our country’s brief but fascinating experiment with women’s major league baseball. I got to thinking how it’s not only a good story with memorable characters, but it also has that added nutritional value of teaching us about a mostly-forgotten, but intriguing piece of history.

And it got me wondering about a related historical issue: women’s suffrage. What was it like to live in a time when intelligent people debated whether it might be dangerous to let women to vote? In my own state of Massachusetts there was a law passed in 1915 specifically denying women the right to “enfranchisement” as they called it. What would it have been like to live in a family where people had differing opinions about it—to be a girl coming into adulthood, thinking about her future, with all this furor about what women should and shouldn’t do flying around?

As much as we feel our own times are bristling with rapid change, people in 1919 felt the same. A war of unprecedented scope had just ended, the Spanish Influenza epidemic had killed half a million Americans in a matter of months, Prohibition had just been signed into law, and yet at the same time social mores were becoming much looser.

So, I’m delving into history books, newspapers, fiction from that time, everything I can find that will give me the facts and the flavor. It’s pretty intimidating to think about tossing all this new knowledge into the usual juggling act of plot, characters, setting, relationships, etc. But little by little I’m starting to get a sense of how to integrate it with the story I want to tell.

At the moment, what really intimidates me are the clothes. I barely notice the fashions in my own time, how am I going to properly convey what women were wearing almost a hundred years ago? Apparently there were corsets for some, girdles for the more modern, and for the truly avant guard … no hardware whatsoever! No wonder so many people thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket.

I’m learning that people are worried about that hand basket trip in every age. And as soon as my catalog comes, I’ll know just what they were wearing in 1919 as they prepared for whatever surprising thing might happen next.

12 Responses to “The Stuff and Flavor of a Different Time”

  1. Juliette Says:

    March 27th, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Cathy, I’m thrilled to know that the story resonated with you and your experience of single parenting. And what a kind offer to chat about your home and the period — I wish I were closer so I could stop by and see it. It sounds lovely.

  2. Cathy Says:

    March 27th, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Hello Juliette,

    Just finished reading “deep down true” and wanted to share how much it moved me. As a single Mum, so much of what you wrote resonated deeply. I laughed and was moved to tears, loved Dana’s connection with her children.

    Also, saw on your blog you are researching the early 1900’s. My sister and I share a fabulous 1918 home just outside of Vancouver BC, and love the character and feel of our home. Happy to chat if you want!

    warmly, Cathy

  3. Juliette Says:

    March 1st, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    Jadwiga, your English is excellent! And I’m so happy you found the translation to be a good one, and that you enjoyed Shelter Me so much. My next book, Deep Down True, is being translated into Polish, and I’ve just sent a note to the foreign rights director at the agency to see when it will be available for you. I’ll let you know as soon as I find out. Thanks so much for your lovely note!

  4. Jadwiga Says:

    March 1st, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    Hallo Juliette,
    I send my greetings from Cracov in Poland.
    I have just read your ” Shelter me” novel ( Polish title is different than oryginal, namely ” A porch full of the sun”). I found your book in my favourite library , translated into Polish (unfortunately, is not available in English in our bookstores, but I have to look for in Penguin bookstore). You have written a great novel, and Polish translator did a great job!
    I am really impresed and moved. Everything in it is close to me and very human : dilemmas connected with other people help, conclusions, reactions, and very smart language. All those elements make all characters very real and a book very wise. While reading, I could look at me and ask myself a few questions. Additonally, this plot with Roman catholics and Polish surname of Tug is nice :-)))
    Thank you for this book, I am waiting for next in Poland. Up to now no other translated into Polish is available, but all my hope in Penguin , in English. I hope I will be able to understand everything properly – you know, my Englist is not perfect 🙂
    Best regards

  5. Juliette Says:

    February 23rd, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    Hi Kaily — I remember you! Thanks so much for your kind words about Deep Down True. I take that as high praise coming from a teenager, since there is so much about the teen and preteen years in the story. Keep reading! Juliette

  6. Kaily Says:

    February 23rd, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Hi Juliette-

    I commented on your blog about a year ago while I was a Freshman just after finishing your book Shelter Me. I am now a Sophomore in High School and have just finished Deep Down True.

    Your books are truely inspirational and moving and I enjoy every second of reading them.

    Thank you for the amazing books, I’m looking forward to reading more!
    Kaily Crous

  7. Chris Schlaeger Says:

    December 29th, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    The new book sounds wonderful – I can’t wait to read it. I loved the other two. I envy & celebrate your talent. Thanks for sharing it.


  8. Juliette Says:

    December 14th, 2011 at 8:04 am

    I’m so glad Deep Down True left you feeling satisfied — it’s a great word, and the way I hope all my readers will feel after finishing the last page of any of my books. At the moment, I don’t have a sequel in mind for Dana, Tony, et al. but I never say never. It could happen.

  9. greta Says:

    December 14th, 2011 at 12:21 am

    Hi Juliette: Just wanted to let you know I just finished “deep down true” this evening. What a great, story! I am so hoping you’re planning a sequel . . . I’d love to read more about these interesting characters! Obviously, I’d love to hear more about the love story between Dana & Tony (that was so satisfying—weird word maybe, but I LOVED reading about them finally connecting!!); & also would love to see where Connie, Alder & Jet wind up!
    Thanks for this wonderful book . . . it was sweet, tender, thoughtful & totally “in tune” with where so many of us find ourselves. Thank you.

  10. Aunt Mary Mellon Says:

    December 8th, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Hi Julie, subject sounds great ! Just finished ” Killing Lincoln “Loved it ! !

  11. Juliette Says:

    December 2nd, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    I haven’t read Fall of Giants, yet, but it’s on my list. And I love the food idea! If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears.

  12. Steve Says:

    December 1st, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    Hi Juliette, I really enjoy these type of books. Did you read the Fall of Giants by Follett yet. It takes place right around that same time period. Have you also thought about researching the food of those days. I am a real foodie and think it is cool to read old cookbooks. It was a funny time in regards to cooking and what they ate. Might be a nice twist to add.

    Good luck.


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