One of the most important questions I faced when writing in another time was, how do I let the readers know what time they’re in without blasting it over the intercom?
It’s not so hard when you’re writing fantasy or science fiction because you are creating a whole new world, but it sure does get tricky in a time travel or historical novel. Time travel stories give a bit of a hint that the reader is moving away from the present by introducing some noise, weird atmosphere like a vapor cloud, and a great discomfort to the time traveler. That’s good, but the traveler has to get the idea things are not what they appear to be. The writer has to bring about these changes in time in subtle ways. Diana Gabaldon did it by presenting an eighteenth century dagger into the story that the heroine realizes with some shock that it’s authentic, but new.
Even if you’re not writing a time travel, an historical time period still needs details to acquaint the reader with the proper time in history. Of course, you could always just write the date at the beginning of the chapter like December 25, 1932 Chicago. That's simple enough. But sometimes you want to use a more subtle approach.
I have to say, it wasn’t as hard to set the stage for nineteenth or early twentieth century scenes because a little research will bring up some things to use as props that will alert the reader to the right time such as kerosene lanterns, a stage coach, men wearing six shooters on their hips and so on. But how do you let your reader know your characters are in the 1950’s as opposed to the 1940’s? The best way I know is by using music from that particular time period. After that, throw in popular inventions like the radio or television and who the president of the United States was at the time will pretty much get the time across to the reader. Okay, and it’s so much fun finding out what movies and television shows were popular during that time, too. I get to reminisce for hours and call it research to find these time period giveaways.
While writing HOME FOR THE HEART, which takes place in the mid 1950’s I found Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” was a great song to identify the period. It was also a time of shirt waist dresses with big, full skirts and rolled up jeans. Women were still careful about their appearance in those days. Hats and gloves for church was absolutely required. Anyone remember sweater guards, that little piece of jewelry that held the top of a cardigan sweater together? Houses changed from big rambling Victorian ladies to sleek one story ranch houses or straight-lined houses with plenty of glass windows and, of course, swimming pools for the wealthy residents. I thought a 1940 Studebaker sedan might be helpful to note the time period, but I had to make it old and barely running.
People talked differently during different historical periods as well. “Don’t take any wooden nickels,” was an expression developed during the Great Depression. Although people still used the expression in the 1950’s, I needed newer phrases or ways of talking that hollered, “You’re in the 1950’s.” Some of you may remember the slang brought about by “Beatniks” who spouted poetry and opposition to the work ethic. Some of you may recall the term, “Daddy-O” which wasn’t necessarily your father.
Television shows popular in the period will definitely alert readers to the time period such as The 60,000 Dollar Question, Rin Tin Tin, I Love Lucy, and ” just to name a few. Movies such as “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without A Cause” with James Dean, “The Seven Year Itch” with Marilyn Monroe, and “Guys And Dolls” with Marlon Brando were popular in the 50’s as well.
All these things help to create a story that feels authentic to the time period in which I wrote for HOME FOR THE HEART.
Here are a few excerpts from my new release that suggest the 1950’s:
Excerpt (using songs):
1.Love Me Tender played on the radio and reminded Hank of Lucy dancing with him to the song. The light, fragrance of roses filled his senses. Lucy’s perfume.
Reality settled back into Hank’s consciousness as they entered the emergency room.
2. "Now who wouldn’t like Blue Suede Shoes or You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog? I admit, I’m more of a country and western music fan. I like Patsy Cline and Sons of the Pioneers.” Kyle grinned.
3. On the jukebox, “Mr. Sandman” by the Cordettes, filled the small diner with its happy plea for the man of a woman’s dreams to come to her.
Excerpts (using fashion):
1. Smoothing her hands over her lavender shirtwaist dress, Lucy took a deep breath. Hank is never going to be interested in a plain woman like me. She turned from the mirror just as she heard the knock on the front door downstairs.
Her mother called up the stairs. “Lucy, honey, Hank is here.”
2. Once they arrived at Jane Red Sky’s dress shop, Lucy followed Jane over to a rack of summer dresses Jane had just finished sewing. Lucy loved the new neckline: boat neck in the front, but surprisingly, had a dip in the back with pretty ties or bows.
3. The yellow dotted Swiss was the perfect material for the sundress Jane made for her. She loved the way it dipped into a V in the back with a bow at the bottom. The fitted waist and flared skirt made her feel festive and feminine. Jane even put lace along the bottom of the skirt and lace patch pockets on the skirt to hold her car keys, a handkerchief and some money so she could leave her purse in the trunk of her car. A little bunch of silk daisies as a corsage rested at the waist. Her wide-brimmed straw hat had a cluster of silk daisies to match the corsage pinned to her dress.
Excerpt (using an old Automobile):
He withdrew from the window, leaned back far enough to meet her gaze from where he stood beside her old 1940 Pontiac Studebaker sedan. “Good enough then. See you tomorrow.”
Excerpt (using food and other historical props):
Kyle pulled a coca cola out of the cold water and icy depths of the drink chest and handed Hank one. The two of them took a seat in the metal and red leatherette chairs by the steel desk and talked until Jedidiah returned around an hour later.
These fashions and popular items from the 1950’s help to remind the reader just what time they’re in and give the story a feeling of authentic mid-century life.
Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. Some of her fantasy and paranormal books may also be found at Publishing by Rebecca Vickery and Victory Tales Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media: