Just this past weekend, I typed the words “The End” on the first draft of my paranormal romance novel set in 1955.
Writing a story set in a different time period comes with a special set of problems, not the least of which is the research necessary to get things right. Frequently I’d have to mark text with the intention of looking up a phrase or piece of technology to confirm its use in the 1950s. Sometimes I’d wind up down the rabbit hole of research, discovering interesting tidbits that had no bearing on the story but fascinated me anyway.
For me, setting a story in another time period is more than just learning the slang or studying the clothing, however, both of which I did. It’s about attempting to understand the mindset of the people of that time, what their hopes, dreams, and fears might be. What makes them tick. That’s one of the greatest appeals of writing historicals for me.
I tend to do a lot of background reading as a result, even if the material never ends up in the story itself. It’s there in the structure of the story, how the characters act and think. To me it’s as important as costume design or a soundtrack is to a movie. It sets the stage for the characters and for the reader to enter their world.
In addition to the Internet, I rely a lot on books about the various periods I’m interested in, hence the photograph above. One of my late purchases arose out of my research (and I’m still trying to justify it to myself): Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.
Did you know there was never any such person as Betty Crocker? She was the brainchild of an advertising firm hired by a flour-milling company that eventually became General Mills. She was created as part of a 1921 ad campaign to solve a puzzle and win a pin in the shape of a bag of Gold Medal Flour. The response to the contest was unexpected–in addition to the 30,000 women who solved the puzzles, the company was flooded with letters asking baking questions. Betty Crocker was created to answer those questions and by 1950 was an amalgamation of the forty-eight women who worked for the Home Service Department of General Mills, the largest customer-service department in the industry, fielding up to 2,000 letters a day to help homemakers solve a wide variety of cooking and baking problems.
The first Betty Crocker cookbook was published in 1950, became a runaway bestseller, and has been a favorite ever since. When I opened my copy, I recognized both in the layout and the nature of the recipes within all those old timey comfort meals I’d grown up with copied from those “Church Lady cookbooks” that every major church I’ve ever been associated with has published at one time or another. The recipes I associate with my grandmother and the holidays. Truth be told, that was the real reason I bought this copy of the original Betty Crocker cookbook, complete with all the salt, sugar, and fat of the old recipes. On her death, I discovered that my mother had given away all the treasured church lady cookbooks, and many of those recipes were lost to me as a result. Now I have them again. And with them, a little piece of my past.
By the 1950s, Betty Crocker was a callback to the past, a font of maternal advice that was missing in the lives of many post-war young women widowed or settling down with former soldiers to build families in communities such as Levittown.
Isolated in suburbia from the generational women who would have taught them the ins and outs of the homemaking, modern brides were leaving behind their mother’s old-fashioned ways and complicated recipes–and prepackaged mixes were replacing traditional baking. It only made sense for General Mills to produce a cookbook using General Mills ingredients and Betty Crocker as their substitute mother.
Another brilliant marketing move by the company was to remove powdered eggs from the mixes, instead having the homemaker provide her own eggs, which allowed the baker to feel as though she were ‘making the cake from scratch’ by contributing to the creative process. I confess, when I make brownies or cakes from a mix, I consider them “homebaked” desserts, and pat myself on the back as though I’d grown the wheat and ground the flour myself. Such is the rarity of my having the time to cook for my family these days. And that’s what Betty Crocker allows us to do.
That iconic red spoon and that readily identifiable signature was part of the brand that helped homemakers recognize the advice they trusted. The irony here is that my fictional heroine might be an even worse cook than I am–so she would definitely need this cookbook. Ah well, maybe in the next installment of the series.