My forthcoming novel Heretics is set in two different time periods, 1959 and 1859. As the main character finds himself transported from 1959 to 1859 we get to see what is going on in each of the two periods. One of the challenges I faced was to make everything about the two periods as authentic as possible. 1959 is to some extent an alien world to many people alive today and even those of us who were alive then may have imperfect memories of what it was really like. So how did I go about it and what surprising things did I discover along the way?
The first photograph at the top of this post is meant to illustrate women’s fashion of 1959. In fact I believe this photo, from my own collection, is from the early 1960s though it has the look of 50s fashion. (You can find out more about the model Ruth in an album at my Flickr photostream.) It was very tempting to use a more eye-catching photo of a woman in a mini-skirt but that wasn’t around until the mid-60s. A search on the internet yields lots of photos from the 1950s of men’s and women’s fashion but how reliable are they as a guide to what people were really wearing? The second photograph above is from a 1953 fashion shoot though fashions featured in Vogue were unlikely to be what women in a provincial town were wearing.
With men it is perhaps easier as they were more restricted in their choices and their hairstyles. Crew cuts or the ubiquitous short back and sides were everywhere. (There were elaborate pompadours worn by Teddy Boys but that particular sub-culture doesn’t feature in my novels.) The photograph above shows my dad on the left and illustrates the conservative nature of men’s clothing. This actually was taken in the 1950s.
Beyond fashion there were many questions about what the social mores of the time were and how people carried on in public. One of my characters loses his job as a teacher when it is discovered the woman he is living with is not his wife and that she works as a model. It seems impossible that someone could be sacked for living with their partner today but it was entirely possible in the 1950s. There are more female characters than male in Heretics and some their actions are probably unlikely for women of the day when views of what men and women could and should do were different to modern ideas. For instance, the pub was still largely a male preserve and women would be found only in the lounge bar and then most likely with a male companion. Homosexuality was still a crime at this time and attitudes towards it were strongly held. I have a minor character who we would call “gay” today but in the novel he’s referred to as a “poof,” “nancy boy,” or “queer,” all of which were terms used in the 1950s. The word “gay” still meant carefree at that time.
This brings me on to the question of language and it was the thing that took most time and research to come up with a satisfactory approach. There are lots of words and phrases we are used to reading or hearing in current books and films which were either not used or meant something quite different back in the 1950s. A good example is “cool,” a word which is used so freely today that it has almost lost its meaning. Now I quite frequently hear people use “cool” as a substitute for “yes.” In the 50s “cool” had a much more restricted usage referring to an attitude and a style of dress or type of music. There are many phrases that we hear, particularly in films and TV programmes, that were just not used back then. No one said something was not going to happen “on their watch,” waiters did not serve your dinner whilst saying “there you go” and you didn’t signal that you were responding to someone’s request by saying you were “on it.”
Swearing was different too, though not as much as you might think. There are certain core swearwords that are the same in the 1950s as they are today. Interestingly these core swearwords were also current in the 1850s and earlier. Even “motherfucker,” which I assumed was fairly modern, has been in use since the nineteenth century. Others are of more modern usage. An example is “dickhead” which was first used in the 1960s.
Then there’s the question of what was going on in British culture in general. What music were people listening to, what films were popular, what was the latest trend in cars, how did people act in public? All of this has to be researched and understood to create a believable background. The vast majority of adults in the 1950s were smokers. You could and did smoke in the workplace, on public transport, in cafes and restaurants, in cinemas and pretty much every public space you can think of and therefore you have to factor that into the story. People wore their clothes longer before changing them, deodorants for men were practically unknown, although that was about to change, and together with the ever-present smoking meant that everywhere smelt different to today. If we were to find ourselves back in the 1950s we would probably be surprised at how alien everyday life would be compared to today.
There’s more, much more to know. I find it annoying when I read a period piece or watch a period film to see and hear things which would not have been seen and heard at the time, especially when they have been sanitised. No doubt I have got some details wrong but I do believe it is the writer’s responsibility to put the time and effort into getting period detail, including language patterns, right.
I will discuss the question of how I approached period detail for 1859 in a separate posting.