Diving into the Shallow End

The interesting thing about growing older is eventually you realize there’s a lot of stuff you just don’t know. (We won’t mention all the things you’ve forgotten.) One of my greatest regrets? I never took any history classes in college. Perhaps it’s a mercy; I might have fallen asleep memorizing dates and kings and battles, and it might have killed my curiosity forever.

I’m dimly aware from high school German class, of all places, that the Hundred Years War really lasted 116 years, and was broken into three main conflicts. But I’ll be damned if I can understand the convoluted interrelationships of the English and French dynasties, even with a helpful family tree. Throw in the Black Death and Joan of Arc, and I’ve got the mother of all headaches. It’s a mystery to these modern eyes.

I believe there’s a more integrated approach since my school days—if you’re studying the 1940s, for example, you’re probably reading popular fiction of the day and watching movies and newsreels, reading from primary source newspapers and magazines. You might even learn to swing dance and listen to Benny Goodman.

Obviously, World War II overshadows everything. Since time travel only appears in fiction (so far), the way to really understand a period is to immerse yourself in popular culture as deeply as possible, and it’s a little more accessible for us than going back to the Middle Ages and reading chivalric poems. There is a plethora of readily available information. Documentary series like Wartime Farm (highly recommended, even if you’re not a farmer or into World War II) give a taste of what it was really like for the “average” person.

I’m now writing books set in the 1920s in Britain. I’m American, old, but not 100. Yet. Sure, I’ve read Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Evelyn Waugh. I’ve watched silent films, and listened to original recordings of early jazz. World War I may technically be over, but as we know, there was much unfinished business, so I’ve become inexpert on its influence on the following decade. I can’t pretend I’m a real scholar, and I confess I am far more beguiled by rising skirt lengths than the grim and grisly Battle of the Somme.

There. I’ve said it. I’m superficial. I want to know what people looked like. What they ate. What they bought. How women organized their homes and presented themselves in public, and what the freedom from corsets portended for the future. Clothes may make the man, but frocks from Chanel and Callot Soeurs are much more fun. And a good Hoosier cabinet was a modern miracle of practicality.

I do a lot of research online, but I own precious physical research books I can lose myself in for hours. Drawing rooms, gardens, cars, hair, hats, makeup, shoes—yes, please. My latest purchase harkens back to one of my favorite childhood pastimes—a paper doll book with illustrations from actual dresses of the era. I wouldn’t dream of cutting into it, and wonder which of the designs would suit my heroine.

Does all this mean I ignore food rationing (sugar was limited until 1920 in Britain), police corruption (rampant), poverty (also rampant), or racial injustice (the more things change…)? Not at all. Do I spend pages describing each sequin and feather and polished silver fish fork? Again, no. But it helps to visualize my characters moving about their homes, and what possessions might be meaningful to them.

Are you a historical mystery reader? If there was time travel, what decade would you pick to explore?

Maggie Robinson is a former teacher, library clerk, and mother of four who woke up in the middle of the night, absolutely compelled to create the perfect man and use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible doing so. A transplanted New Yorker, she lives with her not-quite perfect husband in Maine, where the cold winters are ideal for staying inside and writing historical mysteries and romances. A two-time Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice nominee, her books have been translated into French, German, Portuguese, Turkish, Russian, Japanese, Thai, Dutch and Italian. Maggie is a member of Sisters in Crime and Maine Romance Writers.


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8 Responses to Diving into the Shallow End

  1. John Clark says:

    Prior eras, even ones we lived through, become ever more challenging as we age. I graduated from high school in 1966 and am writing a YA story set in 1969. Several times, I’ve had to double-check on what was/wasn’t happening, or available back then. It does become fascinating every so often, particularly when it triggers a new memory.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      They say if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t having any fun! That’s my coming-of-age era too, and I wouldn’t go back for anything.

  2. matthewcost says:

    I am planning for my next book to be a mystery set in 1920-30’s Brooklyn. It seems to be a fascinating time period and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in it.

  3. Kay Garrett says:

    I do enjoy historical mysteries! If given a choice of times, it would be a toss up between the late 1800’s and the first half of the 1900’s. It would be like getting a glimpse of what life was for my parents and grandparents.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      That’s one reason why I enjoy the Wartime Farm show so much. Everyone is dressing/eating/doing what you would have done if you were alive then, and I think of my parents and grandparents. The presenters do other eras besides World War II, too.

  4. Helen White says:

    I loved Wartime Farm as it gave me a better insight as to what my mother went through in England.

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