The Fun of Historical Research

The Author’s Billboard group came up with an interesting idea—Spanish Gold: a series of novellas that are related to gold and jewels seized from a pirate ship in the 1600’s. The booty is cursed. If you use it selfishly, you will come to a bad end. If you use it for good, you will be rewarded.

The project, which will start coming out next spring, appealed to me for several reasons. The stories could be set in any era—from the 1600’s and even into the future, and there’s a magic element because the gold is cursed. But how to narrow down a time period?

I attended Thrillerfest in New York in July, and I went to an interview with Stephen Hunter where he was talking about his research for suspense novels about the FBI in the 1930’s. He’d had trouble finding research material, and I suddenly started thinking about my master’s thesis. It was on 30 years of advertising in the Ladies Home Journal—from 1910 to 1939. Since the 1920’s were so different from the decades before and after them—did the values the ads appealed to change? Like luxury versus frugality or made in America versus appeal to the exotic. And how much emphasis was there on time-saving products?

A Luxury Chevrolet

I found less change than I’d expected. But I did learn a lot about domestic life in those decades. Lead paint was advertised as a good thing. So was spraying insect repellent in a baby’s room. And Vienna sausage was the new way for Mom to get dinner on the table quickly.

Another revelation was how many companies have gone out of business and how a few products, like Campbell’s Soup, look virtually the same. When was the last time you encountered a Leonard refrigerator or Wolf undergarments? Or washed your silk blouses with Lux soap?

Campbell’s Soup Hasn’t Changed Much

I went up after the Thrillerfest session to tell Hunter that he could discover a lot about life in the 30’s from reading the Ladies Home Journal. His talk stirred my interest in the era, and I thought—why not use it for my story?

I’ve started writing my novella while at the same time doing research that will make the era feel real to the reader.

Here’s a Subtle Ad for Toilet Paper

Because I needed to pick a year, I decided on 1935. When I wanted my hero to read a story to his daughter, it had to be something published that year or before. Did you know Mary Poppins came out in 1934 or that the Wizard of Oz was published in 1900?

What about the price of gasoline? It was seventeen cents, which seems pretty high, given the economic conditions, but I’ll take Wikipedia’s word for it.

I also bought a January 1930 Ladies Home Journal, and I’m having fun looking at the ads—some of which you can see here. I’m also finding a lot of old photographs online.

A Racy Ad for Cannon Towels

It’s easy to get caught up in research. And, of course, the temptation is to use everything I’ve learned. I’ll have to make sure I don’t include every fascinating detail—just drop in enough to plant the story firmly in the thirties.

Do you like historical fiction? Why or why not? Do you read anything from the 20th century?

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About Rebecca York

NY Times & USA Today best-seller, Rebecca York, is the author of over 150 books. She has written paranormal romantic thrillers for Berkley and romantic thrillers for Harlequin Intrigue. Her romantic-suspense series, Decorah Security, is set at a detective agency where agents have paranormal powers or work paranormal cases. She also writes an Off-World series where each story is a science fiction romance taking place on a distant planet in the far future.  She also writes the Unbound series for Changeling Press.  View website

8 Replies to “The Fun of Historical Research”

  1. I always appreciate authors who do the research that gives the reader a real flavor of the era. As someone interested in historical backgrounds, I have often found that anachronisms and inaccuracies can tear me out of a story rather quickly. I’m looking forward to your story- or should I say, looking backward?

    • Same here. If I know it’s wrong, it spoils the story for me. It doesn’t have to be historical. Robert Ludum put “a small hotel” on Nebraska Avenue in DC. With a coffee shop across the street. Huh? Where?

  2. I love the ephemera and glimpses into the past you provided here. They are fun and so revealing. I’ve spent time looking at lots of food ads from the early to mid-twentieth century, which are also very revealing. Can you imagine an ad for molasses with a beaming husband looking at his wife holding a pan of gingerbread and saying, “It’s true, I married you for your gingerbread!”?

  3. I admire writers whose plot or setting requires in-depth research. I probably wouldn’t get anything else done. How does one decide what detail to use, how far in depth to go? I’d get bogged down by how much things have changed, and how little. I can’t wait to see – or read – the results of your efforts!

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