Basing Your Story in a Different Time Period: Total Immersion in the 1950s

I get a kick of out writing about different time periods. I love the research, the total immersion in the culture and mindset of the time. Sometimes that’s easier to do than others–Regency society is so far removed from our day to day life now I believe I’d be hard-pressed to make the total immersion method work–but I do enjoy reading books such as What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. And while they aren’t accurate, a plunge into Georgette Heyer’s books, or watching just about any adaptation of a Jane Austen novel can help you get a feel of time period. Of course, the period in question is more than just the little sliver you’re going to discover without an in-depth dive into research, but it’s a start.

When I wrote a story that took place in the the summer of 1940, I found myself obsessing over the details of the period, to the extent that I read all kinds of books on the subject, watched documentaries, and rented movies either made at that time or depicted that time. When I finally sat down to write the story, the words just flowed out o me. In some ways, it felt like I was watching a movie in my head as I wrote

I adore that feeling.

Previously, I wrote about the fun of researching slang of the 1950s for my WIP, Bishop Takes Knight. Today, I’d like to share a little about the movies I’m watching. For the purposes of the story, I’m limiting myself to movies that took place before 1955, which is a bit of a bummer, since there are some terrific movies I have to leave out. While Godzilla was released in Japan in 1954, it wasn’t released in North America until 1956, which means I can’t have my characters watch it–nor can I have them refer to the sublime Forbidden Planet, which was also released in 1956. If you have never seen Forbidden Planet, beg, borrow, or steal a copy. For a ‘cheesy’ 1950s sci-fi movie, it is amazing. Both of these films would have been fun to reference, and especially useful to the story. As it was, I had to have one character mention the Japanese version of the film and tell the others what the movie was about.

But in general terms, there are some terrific movies out there that suit my purposes well. For getting a feel of the 1950s, there’s nothing like indulging in Roman Holiday. Audrey Hepburn shines in the role of the sheltered princess who kicks over the traces and goes on an unlicensed jaunt during a royal tour. Gregory Peck is perfect as the jaded ex-pat American journalist who collects Hepburn like a stray kitten off a park bench and then fights with his conscience as to whether to protect Hepburn or get the story of a lifetime. Neither expects to fall in love along the way. I confess, both my heroine and hero pull some traits from the leads in this film.

For sheer joyful exuberance, there’s 1952’s Singing in the Rain. It has to be one of my all-time favorite Gene Kelly movies. Not just one of the best movies of the decade, it’s now considered one of the top 50 movies of all time. How can you resist the story of a pair of headliners of silent films making the transition to talkies–only to discover one half of the team doesn’t have the voice for it? When new talent Kathy Selden does the voice overs, Lina Lamont’s screechy tones are mercifully hidden from her fans. But it’s the fantastic dancing and singing by Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly that earn this film its place in cinematic history. While it is set in 1927, the film has 1950s production values stamped all over it. It is the musical all others must measure up to. From Singing in the Rain, I gleaned the rhythm of snappy banter, and the intimacy that late night brainstorming sessions can create.

One of the most frighteningly intense movies I’ve ever seen has to be Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Face it, Hitchcock owned the 50s. Some think his 1959 outing Vertigo is his best, but for sheer nail-biting anxiety, the last thirty minutes of 1954’s Rear Window is hard to beat. Jimmy Stewart plays the likable “Jeff” Jeffries–a photographer housebound due to a broken leg. Boredom and his observer’s eye lead him to spy on his neighbors, but when he suspects one of his neighbors killed his wife, Jeff enlists his society girlfriend to do a little onsite investigation. Seriously, when you watch this, make sure you have the lights on and the doors locked. It’s that intense! I wanted some of that feel to my story too.

At first glance, this would seem a widely diverse set of movies to pull elements from for a story about a paranormal agency that collects alien artifacts! Maybe a little Warehouse-13 would be more in keeping. Not to worry, I watched that too!

If researching for a story has taken you down a rabbit hole of movies and television shows, I’d like to hear about it! I think it’s the best part of being a writer. Or if you’ve read something that made you want to learn more about a specific time period or historical event, I want to know about that, too!

2 thoughts on “Basing Your Story in a Different Time Period: Total Immersion in the 1950s

  1. I’ve written a couple of novels set in different time periods from “today”: one in the 1970s and one in ’80s. For those, I could draw on personal memory from a teen or YA POV (my own!). I’m planning to back a little further with one set in 1930s Depression-era West Virginia. I was just going to view old b/w photos for my “research.” But now I’m leaning toward watching movies of the period, up to and including “Grapes of Wrath,” even though it was released in 1940. Thanks, McKenna, for providing some inspirational ideas!

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