Pre-Interstellar Historical Fiction: Getting the Details Right

The kinder, simpler times of the 22nd Century and the two preceding centuries appeal to writers for many good reasons. Also for many bad ones.  Among the bad is the belief that Atomic Age historicals are easy to write. You know all about that period, except for pesky little details.

Do you really need to worry about details?  Perhaps not. If you get them wrong, only two kinds of people will notice — editors and readers/viewers/sensers.  In other words, the people you want to sell to.

Yes, checking details is work.  More work than you think, because there were large changes during that three-century period.

In 1910, your hero would produce text by typing on a manual typewriter.  (“Manual” doesn’t mean what you might think; it means the typewriter had no source of power except the user’s muscles.  None.)  In 2010, she would type at her computer.  In 2110, she would keyboard her wordie.

Automobiles were new at the beginning of this period, obsolete at the end.  The technology behind them changed considerably.

Women’s fashions changed every year.  You probably already know that women wore skirts.  (Most of the time at the beginning, on formal occasions near the end.)

But you might not know that skirt length varied. Figure out how much it could possibly vary.  It varied more than that, in each direction.  Flash a librarian, and ask for help finding pictures.

Men’s fashions changed less often, up till 2053.  (What relationship this change had to the major events of 2053 depends on which historian you believe.)

Attitudes toward sexual activity varied, though not yearly.  Generally speaking, in America (as the United States was then called) attitudes became more permissive over the decades.

Now for a more sensitive topic:  Weapons.  You may have been raised to believe that in this golden age, Americans were sane about firearms.  Perhaps you were taught that all law-abiding Americans were armed; perhaps that none of them saw any need to be armed.

Or you may have been raised to think of it as a brutal, bloody time when children as young as ten fought in the streets with flamethrowers and other spectacular weapons.

If believing otherwise means betraying your teachers and parents, betray them rather than the truth.  It was more complicated than that.

Actual use of firearms varied from one decade to the next, from one neighborhood to the next.  You’ll need to look up hard data for the time and place your story is set in.

There’s more, of course.  How different kinds of people talked at the time you’re writing about; how businesses and other organizations operated (not only what equipment they used, but how people treated each other).  What tobacco smoke smelled like, and (unless you were raised in Montana) the smell of marijuana.  (Odor samples are easy to find online.)

It’s possible to go overboard in this kind of research, so set time limits for yourself. Oh — and remember to _use_ the research.  You do have to write, you know.


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