Near History: Reading Suggestions for Research

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 in.

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 Internet Archive 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 extremes.

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).

The 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 Rock Age.

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 Archive.

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 any more.

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 whatever.

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 rulers.


copyright Holly Ingraham

As the last person in the original group with a surviving interest, I am now hosting Historical Novelist's Center, whose unsorted lists may give you specialty books you need. I will add and update links as I can. This includes periods as late as the 1960s.


 50 Books for:

1926 New York

1931 New York

1934 New York

1937+ Los Angeles

1937+ Europe

1943 New York

1940+ Europe


 1940+ London

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