The Stuff and Flavor of a Different Time
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.