Losing Myself in the Past: My Writing Playlists

Historical fiction requires a completely different mindset. To lose yourself in another time, it helps to experience it. To write MODERN GIRLS, I needed to block out the twenty-first century and pretend I lived in the first half of the twentieth century. So I immersed myself in the spirit of the 1930s, using every sense I could. I looked at the paintings Dottie sees at MOMA. I listened to music from the ’30s that she would have listened to. I buried my fingers knuckle-deep in the kuchen dough that Rose made and then happily ate the baked coffee cake. I was initially going to say that I didn’t really use the sense of smell, but I believe my nose did transport me back when I opened a bag with my son’s gym clothes in them.* If that wasn’t the smell of unwashed bodies on the Lower East Side in August heat, then I don’t have the imagination or stomach to imagine what it must have really been like.

*Those on Facebook will recall this June exchange:
My boy asked for a plastic bag to bring home gym clothes tomorrow.
Me: You’ve had gym all year?
Boy: Yeah.
Me: Have you brought your gym clothes home before?
Boy: Yeah. I did once. Before winter break.

"Anything Goes" by Cole PorterThe fun of writing playlists is everything you can add to them; you don’t have to restrict yourself to music, although music is a great place to start. The magic of the modern age is that I was able to create a Pandora station for 1930s music, which kept the music both old (as in vintage) and fresh at the same time. My station played Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Fletcher Henderson, and Artie Shaw, and new (to me) singers were often thrown in the mix. When I struggled with a scene, I’d pop in my headphones, put on my 1930s Pandora station, and go for a run till it worked itself out. When little people (aka my children) had a snow day and were making a ruckus, again the earphones went in, and I was in my own little world that I shared with Dottie and Rose.

Music appears in the novel as a way to distinguish class and cultures. Rose listens to classical music, which Dottie finds hopelessly old fashioned. The music of the day is a symbol to Dottie of the life she longs to have:

I tried to follow along, but I kept sipping my drink, which really was quite delightful, and taking in his handsomeness and the hubbub of the room, and I felt light-headed and lovely, as if I were in the middle of a Cole Porter song. I could be very happy here, I thought.

Music is a wonderful way to set the mood, but my playlists also included movies. Movies let me hear the language, see the fashions, and, well, procrastinate on actually writing. The cable channel TCM is filled with flicks from the thirties, so I recorded a ton and binge watched films such as No Man of Her Own, It Happened One Night, and My Man Godfrey.

My very favorite is the one that comes with Jungle Red nails, the amazing “The Women” (the original, of course; the remake is definitely not up to snuff), and if you haven’t seen it yet, you need to stop reading this post right now and go watch it. No, I mean! Right now!
(Yeah, that’s not passing the Bechdel test anytime soon, but I still adore the movie.)

Cosmopolitan February 1933Finally, books let me disappear into the Lower East Side. Rather than read historical fiction, I preferred reading actual historical fiction (meaning books written in the 1930s as opposed to about the 1930s), like CALL IT SLEEP by Henry Roth, JEWS WITHOUT MONEY by Michael Gold, and THE BREAD GIVERS by Anzia Yezierska. Magazines were even more escapists, as I lounged on my bed, paging through Cosmopolitan (which was more literary than fashion-oriented), McCall’s, and House and Garden. I could picture Dottie’s dream trousseau, understand the nuances of feminine hygiene from the ads, and laugh at the outdated stories. (My favorite from that Cosmo? “But Will It All Be the Same 100 Years from Now,” which has famous people of the time commenting on what life will be like in 2033; Amelia Earhart on the future of transportation, Frank Lloyd Wright on the future of the home; Gabrielle Chanel on the future of fashion.)

But alas, I have left the 1930s behind. Now, I’m starting fresh, just a decade earlier, but a decade with different fashions, tastes, music, and movies. So I’m building new playlists for my 1920s novel, finding songs (thanks, Pandora!), looking for films, researching magazines. When today gets a little too much for me, you’ll know where you can find me: smack in the middle of the Jazz Age.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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