‘Get a Wiggle On’ in your research

You’re reading a novel. You adore the characters, you LOVE the setting, and you know the topic – it’s about one of your favorite time periods or hobbies or whatever. The author has done their job. Everything flows. Everything’s right.

Until it isn’t.

Until you reach that one sentence where your eyes stumble to a stop. You pause, confused. Because surely the author didn’t get that wrong, did they? You re-read the sentence, certain it’ll be different this time.

But it’s not.

The author has screwed up.

It might seem difficult to believe, that in today’s world of Google and online libraries and Wikipedia and multiple editors, that we could still screw up. Historical novels are especially hard to get right, unless you’ve done your research and have an expert or two in your stable, ready to set you straight if you start to go wrong.

I’m working on these issues right now with my young adult novel. It’s set in 1924, and the dialect isn’t difficult to get right – but the language is! So are a myriad of other things that I don’t know much about, and I’m having to research them.

The 1920s had a language all their own. Most of us are familiar with speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers. But what about all the other things people said? People who grew up in the 80s can recognize each other within five minutes by the things we say. The 20s must have been the same way. 🙂 What trips me up, though, are the little sayings I keep having to look up.

For example:  there’s a scene where my main character, Nicky, needs to get out of town in order to make a run (of liquor, to a speFord17touring1 -- Abbyakeasy) on time. Originally, I had it written as:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to book it to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

I probably left that sentence like that for a year before it occurred to me to wonder if ‘book it’ was even a term used in the 1920s. As it turns out, it wasn’t! But a quick internet search gave me a proper 1920s phrase instead, and the sentence became:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to get a wiggle on to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

There were a lot of terms I could have used there instead, to be honest – but I liked this one.

Then there was the term ‘hot rod.’ That gave me fits! Because it was perfect for the line I had to write when the local sheriff comes to give Nicky the shakedown. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the term ‘hot rod’ didn’t come into widespread use until sometime in the 1930s. So I had to default to ‘roadster.’

On top of that, I have to get the car stuff right, because Nicky’s a car guy. He loves his runner more than life, I think. 🙂 So I had to do a lot of research on that, especially since I love cars, but I can’t tell you anything about the mechanical workings of them. I knew I had a kid with a 1916 Model T and a 1917 Cadillac V-8 and how would he marry them together to form a complete car? I’ve got notes scribbled all over about car dimensions, Cadillac ignition systems, and my Holy of Holies, a 1917 car manual that covers almost every car ever made in that year, including diagrams of all the engines (courtesy a trip to my favorite local antiques store, of all things!). And then there’s the greatest writing trick of all:  vagueness. 

Another favorite trick for this novel is newspaper articles. Since Nicky needs to know what’s going on in his world, he reads the local paper constantly. LOVE the fact that my library has them on microfilm! So easy to work them into the narrative – in fact, there’s one very key scene in which Nicky infiltrates an actual event covered in one article. It’s probably my favorite scene in the book, and the speakers’ words are 90% verbatim from the article. (Yes, it will be cited properly if it’s ever published, thank you.)

Here’s a sad fact:  most of your research will never make it into your book. Diana Gabaldon has a great story about this in her Outlandish Companion – when she was researching Dragonfly in Amber, she ran across some information on how the ladies of the aristocracy used the bathroom at lavish soirees, in those enormous hoop skirts. So how did they do it? Let’s leave it at this:  if you have ever wanted a genuine antique carpet, hold that thought. Forever. 🙂 

So don’t let writing history scare you – there’s loads of resources out there. But don’t get complacent, either.

Here’s some links to 1920s – or Jazz Age – language, if you’re interested. 🙂

http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/59-quick-slang-phrases-from-the-1920s-we-should-start-using-again/

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees-knees-dictionary-1920s-slang/322320/

http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

And, because she’s my hero, an interview with Diana Gabaldon about (in part) her research process:  http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/01/08/an-interview-with-diana-gabaldon/

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