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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Stage Props For Writing In A Past Time by Sarah J. McNeal

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:


  1. Oh Sarah, I just took a trip down memories lane. I remember all those things growing up. *Sigh*. Where does the time go?
    I love how you take commonplace things from the era and weave them in. Great job. Doris

    1. Doris, welcome to the club. I loved the 50's. I was a kid, carefree and adventuresome without a mortgage to pay, plumbing to fix, or a living to make. Those were the days, my friend. (I think that was a song from the 60's)
      Thank you for the compliment about weaving the every day things into the story. What's good about the 50's is I remember so much of it from my childhood and that makes it a bit easier than trying to research a time such as 1910 which I used in Harmonica Joe's Reluctant Bride. It sure was interesting though.
      Thank you so much for coming and for supporting me as well as the other authors at PRP. You're very kind.

  2. I tried writing a recent story set in the 1950s and had to stop and do the necessary research and start again. Wish I'd read your hints before that. There was a lot going on during that time and memories of the Happy Days television show aren't enough.

    1. Gerald, you probably remember the 1950's from childhood, right? I did have to research a little using "This Fabulous Century" and "Remember When". I am so glad I have those books because, being a kid, I don't remember political events.
      What was the title of the 1950's era story you were writing? Are you still writing it?
      Thank you so much for coming over and sharing your thoughts, Gerald.

    2. It appeared in the Myths, Legends, and Midnight Kisses anthology last fall, titled "Legacy". She wants to graduate college and have a career and see the world. He wants to run a farm and raise a batch of children like his parents and grandparents. And being set in Sherritt Holler, spooky stuff starts happening.

    3. I have the anthology, Gerald, but I haven't read all the stories yet. I look forward to reading your contribution...especially the spooky stuff.

  3. Sarah, I was born in 1957--so by the time I got to be "aware" the 60's were upon us. I was truly a child of the 60's and 70's--though I know Mom wished the 50's would have lasted forever--it was such a much more easy-going time, and as you say, women were more careful about their appearance. I remember wearing white gloves, white anklets and white Mary Jane patent leather shoes. At Easter, we all wore a hat! But as times changed on into the 60's, all that began to disappear. These are some really good tips about how to let your reader know the time period and make it authentic--and you know something else? It's just as important to remember what they DIDN'T have, too! LOL The thing that I really get hung up on is dialogue. People did not say, "I'll be here for you." LOL I know, I know. My editing mind is ever at work. Great post!

    1. Cheryl, if I were going to say what they didn't have in the 50's it would be anxiety attacks. Maybe the times are so stressful people have trouble walking out the door and facing road rage and the threat of being shot at the shopping mall. There were no shopping malls and highways were just beginning to be built in the 50's. I'm certain there were and always will be people who are anxious and stressed out, but it seems to be so prevalent in society today. In the 50's there was very little quality control, not until Ralph Nader came along and started telling us the woeful truth about the faulty and sometimes dangerous products we were using. So, there were some good things and some bad things about the 50's.
      I have caught some of those mosern terms in historical writing, too. I've probably done it myself. Of course, I do it on purpose with Lola Wilding because she traveled back to 1910 from present day. Other characters just shake their heads when she says something futuristic. But on those popular expressions that don't fit into an historical story, well, that's why it's good to have a trustworthy and knowledgeable editor like you to keep us from falling into the word and phrase pit.
      I was a teenager in the 60's, not much on rebellion, but trying to figure things out socially. I was absolutely crazy about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I thought Sonny and Cher would be together forever and so would Simon and Garfunkle. Things change.
      Honestly, I loved gloves and hats. I still have a bunch of pretty gloves in a drawer and boxes of vintage hats on a shelf in the closet. I just can't let go.
      I know how super busy you are, so I really appreciate you taking the time to drop in on my blog and comment. It's always good to "see" you.

  4. Sarah,

    What a trip down growing-up lane you took me on. *grin* Time-travel stories are fun because of the situations you can put people in--the fish out of water type especially. Your songs also took me back to a happy place, too. Thanks for the fun read.

    1. Kaye, it was fun writing it, too. I just reminisced along the way. Thank you for coming by and commenting.

  5. I could "get" your subtle hints about the time period, but much younger readers won't.
    I learned this lesson with Texas Dreamer. I had Lee to step into an "electric elevator car which was run by a man in a red suit and a little round hat decorated in gold braid. He said, "Floor Sir?" And Lee lost his breath with the upward movement of the electric elevator.
    Now, a youn woman criticized me for this beginning. She thought it was modern times, simply because of the elevator...not "getting" that the man running it was dressed like a trained monkey.
    She missed many other hints, such as "Houston, Texas, at that time, only had 80 automobiles in the entire city."
    So, that was a lesson learned.
    Good post with lots of good food for thought.

    1. In HOME FOR THE HEART the time period wasn't as important as the story line. I did put some time markers in it because it is part of a family saga involving Banjo's son. The only way to be absolutely certain the readers get the timeline is to announce it at the beginning of the story. just before the first chapter. I have done that in some stories.
      I suppose if the time period were of the utmost importance, I could have thrown out some stronger markers, but in this particular story, it didn't matter as much for the reader to understand it was a 1950's story. In contrast, a time travel story has to have strong time markers for obvious reasons.
      As you indicated, Celia, some readers aren't going to "get" the time period if you shouted it from the roof tops. Some people just don't know history.
      On December 7th one year while I was working triage in the ER, I just thought it would be interesting to see how many people might know what that historical date was connected to December 7, 1941. I must have triaged a hundred people that day and only one person, an elderly WWII veteran, knew the significance of that date. It was, to say the least, very disappointing. I expected young people to know it because they were in school and learning about history so it ought to be fresh in their minds--but nope, not a single one got it.
      I think having an elevator attendant dressed in that old fashioned way would have been a big clue about the time not being modern day. The hint was enough; the reader, on the other hand, was not. And let me just get out on a verbal limb here and say, some people don't know when to keep quiet before they embarrass themselves the way this reader did with your work. Just sayin'...
      I'm a poky reader. I take my time because I want to read every word and understand all the little nuances of the story. It's a good thing to be a careful reader. Many writers are saying so much more in their stories than just boy meets girl, they fall in love, have some problems, and work it out. I wouldn't want to miss those subtleties the author put such effort and intention into including in that story. Sometimes I know a great deal more about the author than just the story they wrote. I become acquainted with the kind of person they are through their stories.
      I always love to hear what you have to say when you comment, Celia, because you have a way of bringing out such interesting points. I "get" you.