I’m attempting to write my first novel. It’s a murder mystery, for nine to eleven year olds, which is set in 1921. Before I started, I didn’t realise how much extra work I may have created for myself.
I can’t really remember why I decided on 1921, but as the story has started to evolve, I’m trying to make sure that the world that my characters walk around in is as historically accurate as possible. As a teacher and parent, I know that pre-teens learn an awful lot about history from what they read – I certainly did myself – and feel it only right to make sure that I’m not mis-representing the era for them. So I’m determined to get it right.
And what do I know about 1921? Well, very little as it turns out. When I did my degree in English Language and Literature, I did a whole half-term of Modernist Literature – but James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and D.H.Lawrence didn’t write for children, or even about children (unless you count all that ‘Moo cow, moo cow’ stuff from ‘The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’). I’ve quickly realised that writing a novel with a historical setting is going to require a good deal of research.
Yesterday morning, I was trying to write a scene where two women were returning from a night out. Where had they been? Who would they have been with? What kind of transport would have been used to get them home? Cue two hours of looking at photographs of trams and buses, trying to find out what times they were likely have run until in a town in 1921, whether they had conductors, what they smelt like, what fabric the seats had, how much it would have cost, whether women would have felt safe walking from the bus stop to home on their own, whether they should have a male escort… Until I decided that, well they’re middle-class ladies, so maybe it would be more realistic for them to hire a cab. But would you ring for a taxi, get your maid to flag one down, what kind of car would it be, would the driver speak to them…. My two ladies, in two hours of ‘writing’ had not quite made it home yet, but I do now have some lovely pictures of buses, trams and cars on the wall of my office.
Clothes, I can cope with. I’ve bought a copy of a fashion sourcebook for 1920s British fashion. It’s great as it shows you exactly what people would have worn for different occasions, for each specific year, what materials clothes would be made out of, and their accessories. As long as they are middle or upper-class adults. If the character is working-class, or a child, I’m still pretty clueless.
Part of me thinks that it would be easier to give my novel a more contemporary setting, but I can only imagine the perils of writing a murder mystery with the issues of CCTV, modern forensics and the internet to deal with.
So if anybody has ANY useful nuggets of information about what ‘things were like’ in 1921, or can point me in the right direction, I’d love to hear from you.
For now, I’m going to get back to choosing my murder weapon and worrying about what type of underwear a fourteen year old maid may have worn!