How to write about a different period from the one you live in


07 August 2020
Author Matson Taylor describes how he immersed himself in the 1950s and 1960s for his debut comic novel
How to write about a different period from the one you live in Images

Writing fiction set in a period different from the one you live in is a bit like learning a foreign language. The only way to really get it right is to throw yourself in at the deep end and experience full immersion. When learning a foreign language, this obviously means finding a partner who speaks that language as a mother tongue (the best way to learn a foreign language). When writing fiction, then, full immersion Plan A means marrying whoever it is you’re writing about: an eighteenth century British naval officer, say, or a 1950s American housewife. Now, for some of us this is not easy. You might already be married and in that case bringing home a Victorian detective or Tudor princess might be quite difficult to explain. And that’s when full immersion Plan B comes in.

Full immersion Plan B is much easier than full immersion Plan A. It consists of throwing yourself as much as possible into the material culture of the period you’re writing about. For example, magazines. I love them. Not so much for the articles but for the adverts. You can get a lot from magazine adverts. They tell us how people smelt. What they wore. What they ate. How they went about their ablutions. From adverts we can see what people read, what they watched or listened to, what they desired, what they feared. I spent a lot of time in various libraries flicking through magazines to get a feel for the 1950s and early 1960s. It gave me a real sense of how life was lived. And the same can be said for newspapers too (again, don’t forget the adverts).
I also played a lot of music from the period and watched a lot of films. These would have been the songs and films that all the characters in my book would know about. You might not use any of the music or films directly in your novel but they will be there in your subconscious, cleverly doing something magical and getting ready to pop out and rescue you when you’re stuck. I should add that this strategy (music, films) works really well for 1962, when my novel is mainly set, but would be somewhat less successful in 1762 or 1662 (I have no idea which films were popular then).

Museums and museum websites are great resources too. They are usually stuffed full of material culture and you can glean a huge amount of useful background colour from them. Seeing an 1860s dress or a 1920s car might just help you with a character or a scene. Museum objects such as these have been touched by your characters… or people very much like them. Seeing all these real objects will help you with detail and, as we all know, its detail that brings characters and settings to life. How would you put on that dress? How would you get in that car?

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And finally do your homework. Make sure all your details are correct. Check for historical anomalies. People love to catch writers out. If you say your character has just been swatting up on titration numbers and endothermic compounds for her 1962 chemistry ‘O’ Level exam, be prepared to have people smugly tell you that 16 year olds aren’t taught about these things. Well, they were in 1962. I found the 1962 ‘O’ Level chemistry paper. So there.

The Miseducation of Evie Epworth by Matson Taylor is out now in hardback, published by Simon & Schuster


Do you write comic fiction? Read these top tips from Abigail Mann on how to be a funny writer.