History is More than Facts.

One of the most frustrating aspects of reading or watching a bad period piece is the inability of the writer/director/whomever to remove the modern cultural assumptions from the work. Now, no one can ever completely achieve this, but so many are positively injecting modern morals and prejudices where they don’t belong. It’s distracting and grating.

Old movies, commercials, music and books are a valuable pursuit for those who wish to understand history. Also, much of what survived from decades past is simply delightful. A close watching will tell you how much cultural consensus around politics, home, religion and morality have shifted. Case in point, Billy Wilder’s 1955 classic: The Seven Year Itch. 

In the film, Richard Sherman (no relation to the Seahawks’ cornerback of the same name) is subject to all manner of temptation in Manhattan while his wife and child are vacationing in Maine. The primary test of Sherman’s willpower comes from, of course, the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe. But, the hero tries (and fails) to resist the charms of many lesser vices including cigarettes and whisky.

On the first night of batching it, Sherman resolves to follow his doctor’s orders. In a manful effort at virtue, he eschews his grain alcohol of choice in favor of  raspberry soda. Did you get that? Soda was the healthy choice in 1950’s America.

Sherman himself wonders at the wisdom of his doctor’s advice when he reads the ingredients on the bottle:

Carbonated water, citric acid, corn syrup, artificial raspberry flavoring, vegetable colors, and preservative. Why is this stuff better for you than a little scotch and a twist of lemon?

The Seven Year Itch

If I were writing a story set in 1950s Manhattan, I would certainly consider using this piece of information to create an authentic atmosphere. At the very least, I’d think twice about having a character talk about the dangers of soda as if everyone knew they were bad for your health.

History ain’t just events. It’s ideas, subconscious bias, and unspoken expectations. These attitudes are easier to understand through the media of the age.

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6 thoughts on “History is More than Facts.

  1. It’s definitely tough to avoid doing something like that. I remember in one of my earlier publications, I committed said cardinal sin… twice. One of the sins, I was able to quickly rectify before the book went into print… the other… well it was the characters’ behavior, which was deemed to be wrong for the time period (Medieval characters having Victorian morality). I simply retorted that one saying that the majority of that behavior came from a supernatural character (Angel) that was not of this world and thus was not bound by said law. I stand by that.

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  2. Agree completely. My series is based in Victorian England and there are some scenes that I worried about writing because they seemed wrong (mainly the way men treated women) but that was considered normal then. Historical Fiction should be a journey back to a bygone era. If you want to add 21st century morals, it should be in contemporary fiction.

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    • Thanks for sharing, I couldn’t agree more. James’ earlier statement suggests that a lot of authors make the mistake unknowingly, but I bet many others make this mistake in an effort to transpose modern morals to a place and time in which they don’t belong

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  3. I’m not sure we even started reading ingredient labels until the 80’s or so….We followed our tongues! (And then came those weird science experiments like leaving a nail in a Coke can, or bologna on a bench in the sun….Let alone eating your Big Mac and Fries the next day…)

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