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 that era–the mores, manners, even the slang used in that 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 depicting that time. When I finally sat down to write the story, the words just flowed out of 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 Bishop Takes Knight (Book 1 in the Redclaw Origins series). Today, I’d like to share a little about the movies I’ve been 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 Godzilla 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!

 

Cool! 50s Slang That Lingers On

I’m spending a lot of time doing research these days. I decided to set the WIP in the 1950s, and this has me scrambling to look up things such as when certain movies were released, and what songs were on the Top 40 in August of 1955.

When I write a story with a historical setting, I like to immerse myself in the culture of the time. Once I spent over a month reading books and watching documentaries on WW2 when I wrote a story partly set in 1940. So now I’ve been perusing sites that describe ladies undergarments, searching for real landmarks to use in the story, diving in to the fascinating world of nightclubs, and so on.

Somehow, I never expected slang to be a big part of the story. Mostly because one character is British–and I thought his style of speech wouldn’t lend itself to much American slang. The other character is a former society girl–ditto, right?

But not really. Slang is so pervasive in our culture, we don’t really recognize when we use it or not–see example above “ditto”. The society girl would also have a much greater tendency to use slang than I thought. But there are expressions and phrases that have only come into being in the last thirty to forty years or so–and while they may sound right at first, you can’t use the phrase “get the bugs out” if it didn’t come into popular use before the advent of widespread software design.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time checking out websites that serve as slang dictionaries. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered is not how much things have changed but how much has stayed the same. Sure, 50s slang had a way of adding words instead of reducing them–for example, “Are you writing a book?” was used to tell someone they were asking too many questions and “agitate the gravel” was to leave in a hurry. Today, we’re far more likely to reduce our speech to acronyms, such as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and YOLO (You Only Live Once)–probably because texting is so popular, and these acronyms save time and characters when typing. Interestingly enough, I rarely use acronyms. I wasn’t much of a texter until I got a smart phone with a microphone–and now I dictate my texts, so acronyms don’t come into it very often. I can’t help but wonder if changes in technology will affect patterns of slang again in the future.

But one of the most fascinating things I discovered in my searches is how much has lingered on from previous popular turns of phrase. We still say “cool” to denote someone who is calm under pressure but also someone who is up-to-the-minute fashionable or impressive in some way–someone we’d like to emulate. The biggest difference between the use of “cool” in the 50s vs now seems to be the pronunciation, with the cool kids today stretching out the vowels.

Another holdover is “pad” to refer to someone’s home. Though perhaps not in use quite as much as cool, we still hear places referred to as bachelor pads from time to time. On occasion, I also still hear people refer to kids as ankle-biters, despite the fact the speaker wasn’t born until the 80s. And when someone wrecks their car beyond repair, we still say it’s been totaled.

Words seem to go in and out of fashion, and date us as writers, even though we may be writing in a different time period or our main character is of a different age than we are. If I were to write a story featuring teenagers, I’d have to do a study of slang much as I’m doing right now for my 50s characters.

Also, different groups have their own slang, which may or may not make it into the general lexicon. If you’re writing about hot-rodders, surfers, or Regency dandies, you must keep that in mind.

While this is by no means a complete compilation, here is a list of 50s slang posted by the Lincoln-Sudbury High School (compiled, no doubt, as a homework assignment):

Actor: show-off

Agitate the Gravel: to leave (hot-rodders)

Ankle Biter: a child

Ape: (used with “go”) to explode or be really mad

Baby: cute girls, term of address for either sex

Back seat bingo: necking in a car

Bad news: depressing person

Bash: great party

Big Daddy: an older person

Big tickle: really funny

Bit: an act

Blast: a good time

Blow off: to defeat in a race (hot-rodders)

Boss: great

Bread: money

Bug: “you bug me” – to bother

Burn rubber: to accelerate hard and fast

Cast an eyeball: to look

Cat: a hip person

Chariot: car

Chrome-plated: dressed up

Circled: married

Classy chassis: great body

Cloud 9:  really happy

Clutched: rejected

Clyde: term of address, usually for a normal person (Beats)

Cook, Cookin’: doing it well

Cooties: imaginary infestations of the truly un-cool

Cranked: excited (Beats)

Crazy: “Like crazy, man” implies an especially good thing

Cream: originally, to dent a car.  Later, to badly damage

Cruisin’ for a bruisin’: looking for trouble

Cut out: leave

Daddy-o: term of address (Beats)

Dibs: a claim – as in “got dibs” on that seat

Dig: to understand; to approve

Dolly: cute girl

Don’t have a cow: don’t get so excited

Drag: (hot-rodders) a short car race (Beats); a bore

Eyeball: look around

Fake out: a bad date

Fast: someone who was sexually active

Fat city: a great thing or place; happy

Fire up: start your engine

Flat out: fast as you can

Flat-top: men’s hairstyle (a crewcut which is flat across the top)

Flick: a movie

Flip: to get very excited

Floor it: push the accelerator to the floor

Fracture: to amuse

Fream: someone who doesn’t fit in

Frosted: angry

Get bent!: disparaging remark as in “drop dead”

Gig: work, job (Beats)

Go for pinks: a drag race where the stakes are the car’s pink slip

Goof: someone who makes mistakes

Goose it: accelerate the car fully

Greaser: a guy with tons of grease in his hair

Grody: sloppy or messy

Hang: as in “hang out” which means to do very little

Haul ass: drive very fast

Heat: police (Beats)

Hep: with it, cool

Hip: someone who is cool, in the know

Hopped up: a car modified for speed

Horn: telephone

Hottie: a very fast car

Illuminations: good ideas, thoughts

In orbit: in the know

Jacked up: car with a raised rear end

Jacketed: going steady

Jelly Roll: men’s hair combed up and forward on both sides, brought together in the middle of the forehead

Kick: a fun or good thing; a fad

Kill: to really impress

Knuckle sandwich: a fist in the face

Later: goodbye

Lay a patch: to accelerate so rapidly that you leave a patch of rubber on the road

Make out: a kissing session

Make the scene: to attend a party or activity

Mirror warmer: a piece of pastel fabric (often cashmere) tied around the rear view mirror. (A 1950s version of the Medieval wearing your lady’s colors.)

Most: a in “the most” – high praise usually of the opposite sex

Nerd: same as now

Nest: a hair-do

Nod: drift off to sleep

Nosebleed: stupid

No sweat: no problem

Nowhere: opposite of cool (Beats)

Nuggets: loose change

Odd ball: someone a bit off the norm

On the stick: pulled together. Bright, prepared…

Pad: home

Paper shaker: cheerleader or Pom Pom girl

Party pooper: no fun at all

Passion pit: Drive-in movie theater

Peepers: glasses

Pile up Z’s: get some sleep

Pound: beat up

Punch it: release the clutch quickly do as to get a fast start

Put down: to say bad things about someone

Radioactive: very popular

Rag top: a convertible car

Rap: to tattle on someone (Beats)

Rattle your cage: get upset

Raunchy: messy or gross in some way

Razz my berries: excite or impress me

Real gone: very much in love. Also unstable.

Reds: the Communists

Right-o: okay

Rock: a diamond

Rocket: a car

Rod: a car

Royal shaft: badly or unfairly treated

Scream: go fast

Shot down: failed

Shucks, shuckster: a deceiver, liar or cheat

Sides: vinyl records

Sing: to tattle or inform on someone (Beats)

Souped up: a car modified to go fast

Spaz: someone who is uncoordinated, a clutz

Split: leave

Square: a regular, normal person.  A conformist.

Stacked: a well-endowed woman

Subterranean: a hipster (used by both Ginsberg and Kerouac – Beats)

Tank: a large sedan (usually driven by parents)

Tear ass: drive (or go) very fast

Threads: clothes

Tight: good friends

Total: to completely destroy, most often in reference to a car

Unreal: exceptional

Wail: go fast

Wazoo: your rear end

Weed: a cigarette

Wet rag: someone who’s just no fun

Word from the bird: the truth (Beats)

What’s your tale, nightingale?: What’s the story?

Wheelie: lift the car’s front wheels off the ground by rapid acceleration

I also found the following lists useful:

1950s slang by fiftiesweb.com

20 Slang Terms from the 1950s No One Uses Anymore

Your Guide to 1950s Slang

You’ll find a lot of overlap in the lists–presumably because they all relied on the same source material. If you come across a different and more complete list, I’d love to hear about it!