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Setting the historical scene.

In a historical novel, it is the job of the writer to set the scene with details that are both accurate and evocative of the era. Even in the age of Google I’ve found this hard to do. How do you know when you’ve got it right?

I’m currently writing about Egypt in the 1950’s. This puts the story on the very edge of what may be considered “historical fiction.” I don’t want to get into that. Let’s just say that the setting in historical fiction is not in the memory bank of either the author or the reader.

The difficulty, I’ve found, is that what really was doesn’t match what you’d think was. Here are some tidbits I’ve found in my research that will surprise the reader and (oh, no!) possibly throw him out of the story.

  • Bottled drinking water such as Evian was widely available in Egypt in the 1950’s.
  • It took perhaps five days and multiple planes to travel from America to Egypt. “Transatlantic” usually meant Nova Scotia to Ireland-not that far.
  • Women in Cairo generally wore western clothing and had little pressure on them to adhere to strict Moslem standards. Some wore bikinis on the beach.
  • Planes had separate bathrooms for men and women.
  • Telephones were generally accessible even in Egypt, but private homes rarely had them and making a long distance call was as complicated as applying for a bank loan.
  • Letters that had to go by plane had to be written on special, very thin, paper.
  • Bug spray was available but DDT was still legal.

These details always make an editor write in the margin and in red ink, “What? Did they have that way back then?” or “Why doesn’t she just phone him?”

But what should I do? If it was, it was.



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