The More Things Change? Nah. How to write a novel–part 31

Ain't Necessarily SoWe tend to hear (and repeat) the same things over and over, and when we do, we often bestow the status of “truth” upon them, even when they may not have earned it. Thus it is with “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Fact is, it just ain’t so. At least, not in my experience.

A good bit of the fiction I write is of the historical variety. I often work historical facts into contemporary stories, too. I do this sometimes for fun and sometimes because it gives readers a means to view what went on before in a different light. But the primary motive is that it makes me happy. But then, I’m weird. I know. I admit it. Still, history can be fun, especially if we didn’t have to suffer through it.

Like many of us, I get a good deal of email that’s been passed from person to person as if it were holy writ, even if the information is suspect. Snopes.com and similar sites can be helpful in verifying that. Sifting fact from fiction in the historical record sometimes requires more effort. But it cay pay off.

A few days ago, I received an email with the following revelations, many of which I was (happily) able to confirm:

100 years ago:

  • The average life expectancy for men in the US was 47 years.
  • Fuel for the 1914 Ford Model T (and every other gas powered vehicle) was sold in drug stores and nowhere else.
  • A mere 14 percent of American homes had a bathtub.
  • Only 8 percent of US homes had a telephone.
  • There were only 8,000 cars and only 144 miles of paved roads.
  • The maximum speed limit in most cities was 10 mph.
  • The tallest structure in the world was the Eiffel Tower.
  • The average US wage in 1910 was 22 cents per hour.
  • The average US worker made between $200 and $400 per year.

What I found fascinating about these facts is that they suggest a setting I’d never thought about. As I read over them, my mind churned up one plot possibility after another. How could I best tap into this material and create a world my readers would enjoy? After a bit of reflection, I realized I could turn *any* of these nuggets into a story, or at least the beginning of one.T models

When I started hunting for something to illustrate the second item above, I was surprised to see three diverse interpretations. Need a hint? (They’re all “T” models.)

There are plenty more stats to consider, and any of these could provide fodder for an interesting tale–all from 1914:

  • A competent accountant could expect to earn $2000 per year, a dentist $2,500 per year, a veterinarian between $1,500 and $4,000 per year, and a mechanical engineer about $5,000 per year.
  • More than 95 percent of all births took place at home.
  • Ninety percent of all Doctors had no college education. Instead, they attended so-called medical schools, many of which were condemned in the press and the government as “substandard.”
  • Sugar cost four cents a pound; coffee was fifteen. Eggs were fourteen cents a dozen.
  • Most women only washed their hair once a month, and used Borax or egg yolks for shampoo.
  • Canada passed a law that prohibited poor people from entering into their country for any reason.

Just the stars--45In 1914, the US flag had 45 stars. Here are a few more factual tidbits from that year, just in case the first batch didn’t do the trick:

  • The population of Las Vegas, Nevada, topped out at 30!
  • Crossword puzzles, canned beer, and iced tea hadn’t been invented yet.
  • There was neither a Mother’s Day nor a Father’s Day.
  • One out of every five adults couldn’t read or write, and only 6 percent of all Americans had graduated from high school.
  • Marijuana, heroin, and morphine were all available, over the counter, at the local corner drugstore. Back then, some pharmacists claimed, “Heroin clears the complexion, gives buoyancy to the mind, regulates the stomach and bowels, and is, in fact, a perfect guardian of health!”
  • Eighteen percent of households had at least one full-time servant or domestic.
  • There were about 230 reported murders in the entire US.

Story ideas exist everywhere. You only have to expend a little effort to find more than you could possibly use.

Next up: Who knows?

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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