I’m a big fan of Ruth Harris’ books, many of which are set in the fifties, sixties and seventies—decades that brought social and cultural transformation. Aside from great storytelling, I particularly enjoyed her references on the social mores, food, and fashion of each era. Today, Ruth talks about research and why those factoids matter.
Welcome back, Ruth!
Social, cultural, and political history are powerful tools no writer should ignore. Whether your book is set in the conservative Eisenhower Fifties, the stylish Kennedy Sixties, the gloomy Carter Seventies, the glitzy Reagan Eighties, or the Anxious-Age-of-the-Present, each period offers its own specific backdrop and sound track. The “me” decade and the “we” decade offer high contrast and, by invoking them, your characters will have memorable settings in which to act out their dilemmas, frustrations and successes.
If you research and then judiciously set up the details of time and place—anything and everything from “a woman’s place is in the home” to the “feminine mystique” to the “Cosmo girl” to the dream of “having it all”—you will expand and enrich your fiction. In the process, as you invoke the relevant cultural, political and social trends in your stories, you will draw your reader into a recognizable setting against which their real-life problems and pleasures can play out.
You definitely do not want to give your reader a history lesson—that’s Doris Kearns Goodwin’s job—but you do want to give your characters a relatable world to live in. Your characters can—and should be—shaped by the attitudes of whatever period you choose to write about. Think of Peggy and Joan in Mad Men dealing with the casual sexism of the day. The characters in Downton Abbey caught up in a long-gone upstairs-downstairs world. Carrie and Brody in Homeland are enmeshed in a paranoid present complete with bi-polar disorder, psycho-active drugs and a hero who is a murderer and might also be a terrorist.
By using cultural history, past or recent, your characters can reflect the world around them—or they can rebel against it. Some will choose to drop out, some will learn to manipulate it, others will challenge it, still others will triumph despite the barriers they face.
Are you writing about a period in which people feel positive about the future and confident about their prospects? Or are your characters coping with the Depression of the Thirties or the Downsizing of the current decade? How they think and feel and what they do to deal with opportunity (or lack thereof) offers a potent way to explore and expand the inner and outer lives of the people you’re writing about.
Early Elvis, swinging Sinatra, Abbey Road Beatles, Motown Soul, Latino Salsa, Madonna’s Material Girl, Gangsta Rap, Lady Gaga’s and/or Rihanna’s latest immediately evoke times and places your reader will find familiar. Did her first serious romance—maybe with her tweedy, pipe-smoking Literature Professor—begin and end to Mozart? Did she meet her One And Only when Michael Jackson was moon-walking? Did her bad-boy rascal of a boyfriend give her heartache only Patsy Cline could express? Selecting just the right song and just the right singer can illuminate the emotional life of a character in a memorable way.
Garter belts or Spanx? Circle skirts or bustiers? Pancake or Tinted Moisturizer? Lip gloss or va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe red lipstick? A natural Fro, an old-fashioned perm, a blow dry bob or a Gwyneth dead straight ‘do? Pink streaks or platinum blonde or dark roots or let-it-all-hang-out grey? A hedge fund titan in a five-thousand-dollar suit? A dude in jeans and a pack of cigarettes in the rolled-up sleeve of a T-shirt? A genius techie billionaire in a hoodie and sneakers? Are their clothes worn ironically? Or un-? Choices in clothing, makeup and hairstyles immediately telegraph different times and different attitudes and a writer should make use of each telling detail as she portrays her characters.
Diana Vreeland once said that the bikini was as important as the Atomic Bomb and she was right. The bikini opened the door to much more comfort with the naked or semi-naked human body which, in turn—along with the pill—led to a sexual revolution.
The time when Nice Girls Didn’t morphed gradually but inevitably into the present when Nice Girls Do—and sometimes even post the video. The years when girls who got inconveniently pregnant were sent away in shame has become today’s Single Mom. Within our memory and certainly that of our parents, the changes have been breathtaking. The drama, the resistance, the acceptance, grudging or gleeful, of those changes form a rich tapestry no writer can afford to overlook.
Writers don’t need to know everything but they do need to be interested in everything. Research used to mean trips to the library, flipping through card catalogs and then waiting for the books to be pulled from the stacks. It was time-consuming and often frustrating. Research once meant slogging through microfilm, piles of old newspapers and magazines. Now, thanks to the web and Google, just about anything we want to know is instantly available.
Our world—past and present—is extremely rich in incident, personality and conflict. It’s an oyster with a different pearl for every book, each character and every writer. An open mind and lively curiosity, a habit of reading widely, your own unique memories, passions and interests, plus basic research are your friends. Love them, embrace them, and learn to use them.
Do you enjoy researching facts for your stories? What are some of your favorite resources? Do you have a favorite era that you like read about?
Ruth has a new book coming out…JAMES BOND MEETS NORA EPHRON. OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?
Blake Weston is a smart, savvy, no BS, 56-year-old Nora Ephron clone. Her DH, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop and head of security for a large international corporation. At a tense time in their relationship, Blake and Ralph are forced to work together to solve a murder in Shanghai & break up an international piracy ring.
As the book opens, Ralph is about to hit the Big Six O and he’s not happy about it. Not that Blake is exactly thrilled about the prospect, either. Especially now that she suspects Ralph might be cheating on her with Melanie Bradshaw, a flak-jacket-wearing, gung ho war zone correspondent with a humungo pair of 36 Double D’s. Blake and Ralph survived (barely) the seven year itch but why didn’t anyone warn her about the twenty-seven year itch?
The action starts when Blake buys a faux Chanel bag on a NYC sidewalk & escalates from there to an encounter with a fearsome Afghan war lord and a beautiful woman in Shanghai who might—or might not—be deadly. Other characters include an über-neurotic billionaire, a Martha Stewart wannabe trying to revive her career with the help of a red balconette bra, a rat-fink bastard named Clay Riggins, and Blake’s best friend, Julia (twice divorced, once widowed), who has just switched from hetero to homo & made a commitment to Pilates and Mindful Living.
The Chanel Caper, a romcom mystery, is about the ups and downs of long-term relationships and addresses two of the most important questions of our time: 1) Is there sex after marriage? 2) Is sixty the new forty?
Agent Sara Megibow joins us on Wednesday, January 9th.
Bio: Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books (with Random House, Simon & Schuster, and St.Martin’s Press) have sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club.
Ruth started out in publishing right after she graduated from college. Her first job was as secretary to a textbook editor, an unpromising start if there ever was one, but she was soon promoted to copyediting—much more interesting.
She’s been a copywriter, assistant editor, editor, editor-in-chief and, eventually, publisher at Kensington.
- James Bond Meets Nora Ephron. Or Is It The Other Way Around?
- Weekly Lecture Schedule January 7-11, 2013
- The Scene Stealers – And Why Every Writer Needs (at least) One by Ruth Harris
- Five Sex Thrills No One Talks About with Ruth Harris
- Hold Your Nose and Type – The Upside of Writing Fast with Ruth Harris