Jazz, Flappers, and Prohibition: Researching the Roaring Twenties

Guest Post by Skye Alexander –

Writing historical fiction requires doing a lot of research, which may sound tedious to some people. But once I started delving into the Roaring Twenties for the first historical mystery in my Lizzie Crane series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, I was rewarded with all sorts of fascinating facts, fads, and trivia.

For example, I learned that Prohibition didn’t outlaw drinking alcohol or serving it in the home; only making, selling, and distributing it were illegal. In the 1920s, police roamed beaches performing “modesty checks” on women bathers by measuring the distance from the bottoms of their swimsuits to their knees. Charles Lindbergh, before he became famous for flying across the Atlantic Ocean, performed air acrobatics in barnstorming events across the central US. His risky demonstrations earned him the nickname “Daredevil Lindbergh.”

The Devil’s in the Details

Because mystery readers are sticklers for accuracy, I had to make sure I got the information right. To that end, I sought resource materials that would provide the details I needed. I purchased a 1925 Sears catalog that showed what ordinary people wore, the products they used, and how much things cost in those days. I bought old postcards, newspapers, and magazines. I downloaded period menus from restaurants to learn what people ate. Jell-O, it turns out, was considered a classy dessert because it meant the person who served it owned one of the new refrigerators. I found vintage maps on eBay, including a hand-drawn one of Greenwich Village in 1925 that indicated which ethic and cultural groups lived in which areas, and one of New York in 1926 that showed which elevated railways were being transitioned to subways.

To familiarize myself with Jazz Age slang, I turned to slang dictionaries, including Tom Dalzell’s Flappers 2 Rappers and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II by Marc McCutcheon. There, I learned that the convertible one of my characters drives was known as a “breezer” and that a hot-blooded young woman was called a “bearcat,” which became my protagonist’s nickname.

To augment my trusty Sears catalog, I sought fashion advice from style expert Debbie Sessions at Vintage Dancer, who gave me an extensive course in everything I ever wanted to know about clothing in the 1920s. To expand my knowledge of jazz, I spent days listening to old recordings and watching performances of Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, Bix Beiderbecke, and other jazz and blues greats on YouTube. I read books, stories, and plays and watched movies from the period. What fun!

The Personal Touch

On a few occasions, I had the pleasure of talking with elderly people who shared personal stories with me. A gentleman in his nineties whose parents had owned a grand resort featured in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife recounted his family’s tales of the good old days spent there. Another man whose father worked in the film industry in Los Angeles the 1920s patiently explained how early records were made. And a woman centenarian told me how ladies tended to their personal hygiene––they didn’t shower in those days, they took baths, and if they wanted to have their hair bobbed, they had to go to men’s barbershops because beauty salons didn’t exist until late in the decade.

Settings are important to me, and the locations in my books are based on actual places. Crane’s Castle in Ipswich, Massachusetts (former summer home of the plumbing magnate Richard Crane), served as inspiration for the oceanfront estate in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife. The second book in my series, What the Walls Know, takes place in an eerie seaside castle very much like the Gothic Revival home of inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. The Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, Massachusetts, designed by renowned architect Samuel McIntire in 1782, was the prototype for the mansion in book three, The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors. For the sake of authenticity, I visited every house, restaurant, hotel, museum, train station, store, library, factory building, cemetery, and park I’ve written about, from Boston’s Gardner Museum to Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery, from New York’s Penn Station and Carnegie Hall to the fishing docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts. If it’s mentioned in my books, and if such a place still exists––for sadly, some have been destroyed––I’ve been there.

I still have one famous site to check out for the fifth book in my series: Eve’s Hangout in Greenwich Village. Until I began doing research for this novel, I didn’t know about the popular nightspot that in 1925–26 was a haven for lesbians and bohemian types, including Anais Nin, Emma Goldman, Henry and June Miller, and Berenice Abbott. Eve’s not only served tea, it offered music, poetry readings, and discussions about women’s issues and politics. In June 1926, owner Eve Kotchever (aka Eve Adams) was arrested for obscenity, jailed, and deported to Poland; she later died in a concentration camp. Her crime? Writing a book titled Lesbian Love.

In the process of writing my Lizzie Crane series, I’ve learned about clipper ships, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, art forgery, pipe organs, bootlegging, Ouija boards, phonographs, merry-go-rounds, elevators, and many other things I didn’t realize I wanted to know. And every day I discover something else. “Each day comes bearing its gifts,” as Ann Ruth Schabader said. It seems to me that if schools encouraged young people to read historical fiction, they’d enjoy history classes more––and learn a lot more as well.

Skye Alexander is the author of the Lizzie Crane series of historical mysteries, published by Level Best Books. In 2003, she cofounded LBB with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. She has over forty fiction and nonfiction books to her credit, her stories have appeared in anthologies internationally, and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. After spending thirty-one years in Massachusetts, Skye now lives in Texas with her black Manx cat. Visit her at www.skyealexander.com

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