Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Atlantic City books, Food, Historical fiction, Writing

The perils of pinning down every historical detail

While every good historical writer obviously needs to do a lot of research and get as many facts as possible right, there are inevitably times where we can’t find any information, the known existing information is scarce and sketchy, or it’s so difficult and time-consuming to locate information that it’s not really worth the effort. When that happens, we need to weigh the need for historical accuracy against how likely it is anyone will actually notice or care if some details aren’t 100% correct.

One of those scenarios is what was on the menu at real restaurants.

I’ve spent the past week working on my World’s Fair chapter in the book formerly known as The Very Last, and part of my research includes finding out what was served at the restaurants. I found several great New York Times articles in the archives (which I can search for free through my local library), along with the information at this awesome repository and some other sources.

However, one thing I didn’t count on was that some of those restaurants didn’t exist during the Fair’s second season in 1940, since almost a dozen foreign pavilions in the Government Zone were closed due to WWII. Other restaurants offered different menu items in 1940.

Above is the original menu of the Iraqi café, which sounds totally awesome, but which wasn’t the same during the second season. After I wrote a scene of Cinni and some of her friends having lunch there during their first day at the Fair, I discovered the café expanded to a full restaurant and added savoury Middle Eastern food. I can’t discount the possibility that they still offered those sweet date-based dishes, but that was no longer the entirety of their menu in 1940.

Historical menus absolutely can be found if you know where to look. Some major restaurants will mention the evolution of their menu and food offerings over the years in the history section of their websites. The New York Public Library has a huge free online treasure trove of archived menus. I’ve found numerous websites and serious blog posts about Brooklyn’s sadly closed Gage and Tollner restaurant (which was kind of like Delmonico’s).

But sometimes, it’s just too time-consuming and difficult, or even downright impossible, to track down certain details. Yeah, I could fly up to NYC and spend a few days looking through archives, or pay an archivist or librarian to do the research for me and send me the relevant information. But is that really worth the effort when the World’s Fair only occupies a single chapter? It’s not like the entire book or an entire part of the book is about the Fair!

In the absence of 100% proof, we should err on the side of plausibility. E.g., a seafood restaurant probably wouldn’t serve hamburgers. Vegetarian and vegan options just weren’t a thing until fairly recently. A French café wouldn’t offer Thai food.

Using a fictional restaurant eliminates the possibility of inadvertent error entirely.

Plus, how many people are going to notice or care if you include a menu item that may not have really been available on that date at that restaurant? I highly doubt that’ll pull anyone normal out of the story like a blatant anachronism would. You shouldn’t stress over a tiny detail that’s not important to the overall book. All that matters is doing the best you could with the information available.

Another little detail you may not always be able to find is makeup colours. There are plenty of vintage makeup ads to be found, and vintage beauty bloggers, but not all makeup comes from major name brands. Many makeup companies also like to give their colours creative names, beyond simple designators like red, pink, and green.

Also, makeup colours were a lot more conservative decades ago. The kind of lipsticks I like to wear (black, dark blue, dark green, purple) didn’t exist, and while nailpolish had a somewhat larger range, it also generally didn’t include colours like black, orange, and purple.

Do you notice or care if a few minor historical details aren’t 100% accurate? Do you appreciate an author’s note explaining the reasons for such decisions?

Posted in 1920s, Antagonists, Boris, Historical fiction, holidays, Russian novel sequel, Writing

WeWriWa—Antagonistic Christmas

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Because Russian Orthodox Christmas was 7 January, here’s one final holiday-themed snippet. This comes from The Twelfth Time: Lyuba and Ivan on the Rocks, which is set from 1924–1930. It’s now Orthodox Christmas 1925, and antagonist Boris is having a terrible holiday with his parents. They have a knack for pushing one another’s buttons, and have a difficult time seeing the other side.

Tanyechka (Tatyana) is Boris’s only blood child, whom he had with Lyuba and was forced to sign over all paternal rights to.

“So you gave dollar bills out like candy to all the kids in your religious school, and gave a ten-dollar bill to your assistant,” Mr. Malenkov says in distaste. “I suppose that’s why you couldn’t afford better presents for your mother and I. What do I want with a raccoon skin coat, and what does your mother need with a dress that looks like a slip? You expect either of us to wear these ridiculous things in public?”

“All the guys wear raccoon coats nowadays, and I want Matushka to look beautiful and fashionable when she goes out. See, the dress comes with a headband with a fake feather and glovelettes.”

“Why do I need a feather in my hair and these strange lace things around my arms unless I’m going to a costume ball or working in a brothel?” Mrs. Malenkova asks. “I’m surprised young women are able to wear such revealing dresses in public and not get arrested.”

“Your mother and I are forty-three years old, and we’d be the laughingstock of the city if we ventured out in public wearing young people’s fashions! Meanwhile we both made sure to get you presents with practical value, not things you’ll stuff in a dust-covered chest in another few years when the fad ends!”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

“Oh, yes, because every modern young man wants nothing more than long flannel underwear, bath towels, sheepskin boots, and a duffel bag for Christmas. Those are gifts you’d give your dedushka or uncle, not your young son! I dropped off my gift for Tanyechka last week, and made sure to buy her cute stuffed animals and religious storybooks. You know, age-appropriate things she’ll actually want, need, and use.”

“I suppose it’s okay if you’re not trying to see her or speak to her,” Mrs. Malenkova sighs. “The judge did say you’re allowed to deliver presents.”

“Lyuba and Ivan have the most beautiful baby girl,” Mr. Malenkov goes on, rubbing salt into his son’s wounds. “It’s a pity you’ll never father another child. It would be nice to see what a future child of yours would look like, besides the one you abandoned before she was born.”

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, holidays, Shoah, Writing

WeWriWa—A promise of hope in the coming year


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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

Happy New Year! To mark the holiday, I’m sharing the middle of the three sections in the last chapter of Movements in the Symphony of 1939, “Farewell, Nineteen-Thirties!” In Part II of the book, we’re introduced to a subplot with a Polish family Cinni’s father has been trying to bring to America. Though most of them managed to escape before the borders closed, the five people left behind were sent to Stutthof in the early days of the occupation.

Hans, the one who wrote this letter, is a mysterious young Luftwaffe pilot who provided many of them with travel visas and got them onto trains permitted to leave Poland before the country officially surrendered. He has a secret crush on Emma.

In the bitter cold of Stutthof, Emma shuddered under the thin wool coat she’d come with. The cold season had already begun creeping up on Poland at the end of September, but it hadn’t been cold enough to merit fur. Emma, her aunt, and her three uncles had left their best clothes hanging in their closets and wardrobes back in Warsaw, along with their best boots, all their Judaica, their fine linens, the beautiful tableware they’d entertained with a lifetime ago, all their books, their family photographs, and all their other personal mementos. Emma wondered if they’d ever see their home again, if any of their dear ones had gotten out of Poland safely, and if the Robleńskis were still alive. Most of all, she wondered where Dawida was.

“There’s a package for the blonde,” one of the guards announced, throwing a lump at Emma. “Happy New Year.”

Emma pulled off the thick outer layer of paper and found several slices of bread, smoked meat, some kind of crackers, a few cooked potatoes, and sliced raw carrots. Before September, she would’ve laughed at the thought of this feeding five people for more than one pathetic meal, but now it was a veritable holiday feast. At the bottom of the package, she found a handwritten note.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Dear Emma, Zofia, Aleksander, Borys, and Paweł,

Happy New Year. I can’t promise anything certain, let alone so far in advance, but you must believe I’m coming to get you, not all at once, but as fast as I can. I haven’t forgotten you, nor the necessity of rescuing you from the terrible things I see coming. Never lose hope. By next year at this time, you’ll be in freedom again, maybe in your own home, and with as many of your former possessions as possible. Please believe I’m your friend and have your best interests at heart. Your redemption and rescue can’t come overnight, but they will happen. Hope never dies, even when it seems impossible.

Your unlikely friend,

Hans

Posted in 1940s, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, holidays, Max, Writing

WeWriWa—A memorable end to the visit with Santa

Happy Christmas to all those who celebrate, and happy eighth night of Chanukah!

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year, my Christmas-themed excerpts are coming from the currently-numbered tenth book of my Saga of the Sewards series, set during December 1943. I’ve done almost zero editing on any of these books since I converted their obsolete file formats, so any edits made will be as I’m preparing these posts.

Elaine’s new boyfriend Roger is a department store Santa, and Elaine is his assistant. In the last two snippets, Elaine’s cousins and stepcousins took their turns, and now the youngest members of the family are up, the 22-month-old quints. The first one on Santa’s lap is Amy, who was born third.

“What might you want, little girl?” Roger asked.

“Teddybear.”

Mr. Seward lifted the other four quints on and off of Roger’s lap one by one. Andrew cried the entire time; Paula pulled on his beard and asked for a dollhouse; Susie squirmed as she asked for a toy phone; and then it was Peggy’s turn.

“What do you want?”

“Candy.”

In the next moment, Peggy got a strange look in her eyes, and Roger’s eyes widened. Roger’s entire face was contorted into a grimace as he hoisted Peggy off of his lap and held her as far away from him as possible, revealing a big puddle underneath.

“I’m so sorry,” Bambi said. “Peggy’s been having a lot of accidents lately.”

The ten lines end there. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Mr. Seward shook his head. “Children should have no accidents by twenty-two months old. We need to have a long talk with Cynthia about why she hasn’t been working harder on toilet-training them, and why she didn’t start sooner. I’m sorry my nanny’s negligence caused you to be disgraced in public, Wilkes.”

The elf who’d gotten Roger fired came storming up. “I would go to the boss and get you fired again, Wilkes, but he doesn’t believe a word out of my mouth now that you made him think I’m crazy! Thanks a lot for saving your own skin at the expense of my reputation! Now everyone we work with thinks I’m an insane, jealous little person who made up a scandalous story about you because I’m jealous of you for your height and good looks, and because I’m not tall enough to play Santa!” The elf gave him the finger before storming away.

Posted in 1940s, Atlantic City books, Elaine, Historical fiction, holidays, Max, Writing

WeWriWa—The Campbell sisters visit Santa

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

This year, my Christmas-themed excerpts are coming from the currently-numbered tenth book of my Saga of the Sewards series, set during December 1943. I’ve done almost zero editing on any of these books since I converted their obsolete file formats, so any edits made will be as I’m preparing these posts.

Elaine’s new boyfriend Roger is a department store Santa, and Elaine is his assistant. Last week, Elaine’s cousins Harold and Gene (neither of whom believe in Santa) came to see him, and now Elaine’s stepcousins are up. First is middle sister Cora Ann.

“I want twenty dollies, a little bed for our new kittens, lots of stuffed animals, records, miniature horses, hair ribbons, enough candy to gag on, a fancy pen, and for my stepbrother Eugene to leave me alone!”

Roger smiled at her. “I’ll try my best to get all of those things for you.”

Cora Ann hopped off of his lap and took four candy canes from the bag Elaine was holding. After Cora Ann left, Elaine pulled Sandy onto Roger’s lap.

“And what might you want for Christmas?” Roger asked.

“Ten dolls, a bunch of stuffed animals, lots of candy, and for my daddy to decide to keep all thirteen of the new kittens instead of giving them away or killing them.”

Roger gave Mr. Seward a meaningful look. “I’ll make sure you get everything you want, particularly keeping your kittens.”

Sandy hopped down and took two candy canes.

The ten lines end here. A few more follow to finish the scene.

Next up was Adeladie.

“I know the deal, Wilkes. I’m far too old to believe in Santa, but I’m forced to play along for my little sisters and brother. Anyway, I’d like some romance novels by Georgette Heyer, more mature clothes, lots of makeup, fashion magazines, green and purple fountain pen ink, hair supplies, and a new purse.”

“You have excellent taste,” Elaine said. “Take as many candy canes as you want. Just between us, there are chocolate, sugar plum, cinnamon, and blackberry candy canes at the bottom.”

Mr. Seward hoisted up Amy while Adeladie was digging through the bag and putting handfuls of candy canes in her purse.

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P.S.: Today is my 43rd birthday. My Hebrew birthday, the fifth night of Chanukah, will begin at sundown on 22 December. I’m hoping to celebrate this week by getting my dozenth ear piercing, my right nostril pierced (I’ve had the left done since 2003), and some upgraded jewelry for a few of my other ear piercings.