by Anne Louise Bannon
Details on how to win a copy of Bring Into Bondage at the end of the post.
One of the most fun things about writing stories set in an era other than my own is the way you end up drilling down into the minutiae of everyday living. Okay, maybe not so far down that you bore your audience (Who me? Over research?). But without a good grip on people’s daily lives, it becomes awfully hard to set a believable scene.
In the case of my latest novel, Bring Into Bondage, most of the action takes place on a farm on the outskirts of a small town in the state of Kansas. The Briscow family and their farm are fictional, as are all of the people I describe as living in the small town. But the town of Hays, itself, is quite real. Well, maybe not a town. It’s a small city, to be sure, and even in 1925, its population was about 5,000 people. Not huge, mind you, but bigger than a lot of other places in Kansas.
So how do we find out what life on a farm in Kansas was like in the 1920s? Truth be told, there’s a certain amount of extrapolation going on. Why? Because people don’t tend to write about that which is ordinary. You read novels from a given period and while certain aspects of a character’s personal life do come up, the references usually assume that the reader already knows what the author is writing about.
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Take, for example, the novel Little Men by Louise May Alcott, published in 1871. She makes a reference to a refrigerator in the novel. At first, you go right past it because we all know what a refrigerator is, right? Uh, wait. This is 1871. There’s no electricity. No Freon readily available. So what the heck did Alcott write about?
I do know that there were iceboxes—units that were in kitchens that were chilled by blocks of ice and that they were around in abundance in the 1920s. I also know that while electricity was common, not everyone had it. By 1925, most places were wired, but many, especially in rural areas, were not. I suspect since there was the cost of the wiring, then paying for the utility every month, the issue may have been frugality as much as poverty. So as a sign of Pa Briscow’s frugality, I decided that the farm would not be electrified. Indoor plumbing is also a recent development in the house, even though almost everyone else had it by then.
The other interesting thing is how much of daily life in Kansas in the 1920s we might recognize. One of the most common businesses in Hays at the time was auto repair shops. There were, like, five or six of them in town—more than there were banks. Ready-made clothing was becoming more and more available, although most women made their own clothes. There were schools and a library, hotels, churches.
Agriculture was the main occupation in Hays, as it is now, although even then, more and more people were abandoning farming for more lucrative work in cities. Farming was and still is an extremely tough way to make a living. Even with the new machines that were becoming available, the work was grueling. Kids were expected to pitch in and help. There was time to play, but not much. You were expected to help with the housework, the milking, feeding the livestock, repairing fences and machinery, basic upkeep on the buildings, planting, weeding, and especially harvest.
Most farmers were pretty poor. They may have had decent homes and certainly, they had an easier time eating than most because they could and did grow their own food. But there was not much money for extras and sometimes not even for essentials. Particularly in the 1920s, farmers were having an even worse time than normal. Yes, we think of the great dust storms of the drought and Dust Bowl events of the 1930s, but farmers were already in a bad place when all of that happened.
They were basically in a nasty downward spiral, economically. The new machinery enabled farmers to produce way more corn, wheat, and other crops than they had been able to produce before. The only problem was that the increased supply of corn, wheat, and other crops drove the prices down so that farmers had to try to produce even more to make a profit, which in turn, drove prices down even more. What made the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl so devastating was that many of the farmers had mortgaged their land to buy the new machines.
Which leads to another one of my favorite parts of writing historical mysteries. I know what’s coming and I can (and did) make Pa Briscow out to be even smarter than might be. Not that he knows what’s coming. But it’s a behavior that, at the time, would have been regarded as overly cautious. Now, we recognize it as freaking genius.
Ultimately, that’s why it is so much fun to drill down and look at our collective past. We can see what did and did not make sense, and hopefully, avoid making the same mistakes, either fictionally or in real life.
To enter to win a copy of Bring Into Bondage, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “bondage,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen September 3, 2016. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address.