Near History: Reading Suggestions
We complain about information overload, and
this is where it starts. Newspapers for even small towns. Diaries
preserved. Almanacs. Pulp and literary fiction, showing various
behaviors. Movies, from silents to talkies to film noir to documentaries.
TV and records.
It's a peril for the author that the culture
and behavior seems so close to ours, because it really
isn't. It's not just the clothes: it's the laws and the morals
and the limitations of technology. Forget whipping out your cellphone
or even stopping by a phonebooth (you saw a picture of one once)
to call someone across country in a hurry. It can take an hour
to go through operators to get a long-distance call through in
the Thirties or Forties, and ten to thirty minutes in the early
Sixties before touch-tone long-distance automatic calling comes
The online public-domain libraries often fail
us here. The most aggressive about getting post-1920 books that
are actually copyright-expired is Project
Gutenberg -- but they often lose the date of origin!
You just have to learn what you're looking for, by checking the
bibliogs of more modern books. Looking for the PG books on the
helps a search by topic.
Yes, there are many books on the politics
and the Depression and the wars. There's also a lot on the Golden
Age of Hollywood. There are not that many books on real life,
which for many or most people was not about the Dust Bowl or
breadlines for fifteen years, was never Hollywood except in their
dreams, and for the USA WW2 was only five years of actual conflict.
It didn't go on and on like Vietnam or Iraq. It didn't go on
and on like it did for WW2 in China or Poland.
Fortunately, there's a mountain of primary
sources, that you usually go to the library to look at -- newspapers
and magazines. Some of them are online. There are also books
of the time that the library may have in the basement, or that
they discarded and you need to find in old books stores. Sometimes,
I was fortunate to be in the right thrift shops at the right
decade to get the books from estates of people who lived then.
They are getting rare.
This will be your guide to what to look for
on Alibris and second-hand
Amazon, maybe eBay. There are period books that give you more
of a period flavor, complete with period prejudices. There are
reprints and compilations of the original, like the Dover costume
books pulled from mail-order catalogs. These are priceless for
"ordinary women" clothes, rather than high-fashion
These are, as usual, eras my friends or I
have researched for actual projects, rather than merely titles
pulled out of catalogs. These are the ones that actually helped
or occasionally time-wasters, because no one said all 50 were
going to be great.
One major problem with Near History research
is one I have complained about for decades: why is a subject
chopped off just because a zero rolls up? Books about "the
Thirties" or "the Forties" are moderately worthless
because that is not a cultural, societal, artistic, or political
period, only a calendar flip. The big change points are all around
the middle of the decades in the twentieth century. Oh, yeah,
stock market crash 1929, but it had been building since the mid-20s
and really didn't change anything important, like music or women's
clothes. It has been built up as a big trauma, but it really
isn't worse than the present Great Recession (which is going
to get worse as soon as the National Guard units get home and
need their civilian jobs back, sometimes at companies that don't
exist and sometimes at others that re-organized so their old
job doesn't exist).
split point in "the Thirties" is 1934, with Hitler
in power, Japan moving on China, and the rise of swing to replace
hot jazz, with Prohibition over with. Those "Thirties"
bias-cut evening gowns? Been around since 1927-8, at least. 1934
saw the arrival of shoulder pads in women's dresses and jackets,
anything that had a shoulder to pad: that is the
big fashion break. 1934 saw Hollywood adopt the Hays Commission
censorship: the movies changed radically after that, as adult
subjects could no longer be handled realistically (like all persons
who commit crimes, including social crimes like non-marital sex,
must be punished and denied happy endings).
Equally, a split point is 1964, not 1960 or
1970. Before then, it's the Rock and Roll Age. After the start
of the New Society, the British Invasion, the heating up of both
American involvement in Vietnam and anti-war protest, and hippies
taking over the counter-culture role from beatniks -- it's the
So while you may read books on a decade, note
that the calendar cut-off is totally artificial and that the
author may attempt to make untruthfully homogenous two sides
of a big divide. I have seen them describe "Forties"
clothes strictly as New Look (which didn't debut until 1946 at
Dior and didn't catch on with other designers until 1947 or 1948,
so you know it was 1949 before it was all you could get at the
store), and New Look is totally wrong for 1943, or even 1945.
This is like trying to say the Mod Revolution and miniskirts
covered 1961, as well as 1969 (Mod was distinctly yesterday by
then, with neo-Romanticism coming in).
For any period in near-history, you will want
to scan period newspapers for prices, movies, hot topics, and
businesses taking ads. Ditto magazines like Time, Life,
and Look. Go online and look for old periodical archives.
Without the ads in Scientific American, I would never
have thought to arm my 1923 vampire hunters with glow-in-the-dark
crucifixes for a story. Popular
Science has all 140 years of their magazines
archived on line. I have found a spotty collection of Photoplay
magazine back into the 1920s and 1930s at Internet
A period world atlas will remind you how many
countries don't exist yet, especially before WW2. Belize is often
British Honduras, and Africa is still mostly colonies until the
1960s. You also want every period or near-period map you can
get hold of. If you keep accumulating, you will eventually get
the right one, and until then you can approximate. The Perry-Castañeda
Library Map Collection online at University of Texas
may start you out.
An excellent map source, with many things
like gas station maps and Thomas Brothers or Rand McNally road
atlases, is the David
Rumsey Collection. This takes you right into the indices.
This is hard to find but, if you possibly
can get it, you want The World Almanac and Fact Book,
the year after your target (1943 for a book set in 1942), because
they report day to day on the prior year. Various health and
farmer's almanacs may only give you the calendar ahead and a
lot of ads for patent medicines. The almanac by the New York
World is just stuffed with good information.
If you are in America in the era 1934-1944
or so, look for the WPA guide
to the area. These were published 1937-1939, as part of the Works
Project Administration programs to create jobs, in this case
for writers. If you read carefully and figure what is and isn't
relevant, you can use them back into the 1920s. There are always
maps. Free is good, but they're worth the $20-30 for the information,
and in dead trees may be handier for some of us.
In any period, a guide book for the city of
your setting is invaluable. In Near History, this often means
buying one second-hand. It will be worth every penny for the
street maps, prices, and the guide to things that aren't there
A Little Difference in the Lists
Near History is, at this point, pretty much
twentieth century history. (Pretty soon, though, the teenagers
are going to start writing historical fiction set in the turn
of the millenium.)
That's just one century, not ten or three,
and it's the one we probably got fed the most of in school. If
you are shaky on the politics (and they were more complex than
schools are willing to handle), by all means keep the usual books
#14-21 on history and leaders. There are still some changes.
#14 becomes "A fat history book of the area and quarter-century
before your probable date as an introduction." Simply,
if you're writing 1937, you don't need 1947, but you do need
to know what was happening in 1927, which all but your youngest
characters lived through. So if your target date is 1985, look
for probably three or four moderate books on the politics from
1960 through your time. After all, we already know via 20-20
hindsight that from WW1 forward, country A is usually the USA,
whether faced off against Japan, the Third Reich, the USSR, or
If you feel pretty well-grounded on the politics,
as much as they effect your story, substitute some other aspects
of society. As we know we're in the 20th C., you can look into
anti-Semitism, racism, colonialism, or other societal problems
we are still trying to overcome. Back then, they may have different
slants, greater intensity, and they may be the societal norm.
That may be the very thing you want to explore once you get going.
In the century of the democracies, as opposed
to the millenia of kingdoms, biographies of elected leaders may
matter much less. They change frequently, they can be middle
as well as upper class, even working class, and outside of political
circles are not who people emulate. To locate the glamour image
instead requires reading about entertainers or the very wealthy.
William Randolph Hearst, with his movie-star mistress and Hearst
Castle, matters more in this than, say, Calvin Coolidge. This
will vary by country, but in Near History, unless your character
is what your area considers Society, celebrity may matter more
in their dreams and aspirations. They probably dream more of
becoming an oil millionaire or movie star than an advisor to
copyright Holly Ingraham