Jazz, Flappers, and Prohibition: Researching the Roaring Twenties

Skye Alexander

The Miss Demeanors are delighted to welcome Skye Alexander for a guest blog. As you will see, she is the cat’s pajamas. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to check out her new novel, What the Walls Know.

Skye Alexander is the author of the Lizzie Crane series of historical mysteries, published by Level Best Books. In 2003, she cofounded LBB with fellow authors Kate Flora and Susan Oleksiw. She has over forty fiction and nonfiction books to her credit, her stories have appeared in anthologies internationally, and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. After spending thirty-one years in Massachusetts, Skye now lives in Texas with her black Manx cat. Visit her at www.skyealexander.com.

Writing historical fiction requires doing a lot of research

Writing historical fiction requires doing a lot of research, which may sound tedious to some people. But once I started delving into the Roaring Twenties for the first history-mystery in my Lizzie Crane series, Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife, I was rewarded with all sorts of fascinating facts, fads, and trivia.

For example, I learned that Prohibition didn’t outlaw drinking alcohol or serving it in your home, only making, selling, and distributing it were illegal. In the 1920s, police roamed beaches performing “modesty checks” on women bathers by measuring the distance from the bottoms of their swimsuits to their knees. Charles Lindbergh, before he became famous for flying across the Atlantic Ocean, performed air acrobatics in barnstorming events across the central U.S.––his risky demonstrations earned him the nickname “Daredevil Lindbergh.”

The Devil’s in the Details

Because mystery readers are sticklers for accuracy, I had to make sure I got the information right. To that end, I sought resource materials that would provide the details I needed. I purchased a 1925 Sears catalog that showed what ordinary people wore, the products they used, and how much things cost in those days. I bought old postcards, newspapers, and magazines. I downloaded period menus from restaurants to learn what people ate then––Jell-O, it turns out, was considered a classy dessert because it meant the person who served it owned one of the new electric refrigerators. I found vintage maps on eBay, including a hand-drawn one of Greenwich Village in 1925 that indicated which ethic and cultural groups lived in which areas, and one of New York in 1926 that showed which elevated railways were being transitioned to subways.

To familiarize myself with Jazz Age slang I turned to slang dictionaries including Tom Dalzell’s Flappers 2 Rappers and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition through World War II by Marc McCutcheon. There I learned that the convertible one of my characters drives was known as a “breezer” and that a hot-blooded young woman was called a “bearcat,” which became my protagonist’s nickname.

To augment my Sears catalog, I sought fashion advice from style expert Debbie Sessions at Vintage Dancer, who gave me a course in 1920s clothing. To expand my knowledge of jazz, I listened to old recordings and watched performances of Louis Armstrong, Al Jolson, and other jazz greats on YouTube. I read books, stories, and plays, and watched movies from the period. What fun!

The Personal Touch

On a few occasions, I talked with elderly people who shared personal stories. A gentleman in his nineties whose parents had owned a grand resort featured in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife recounted his family’s tales of the good old days spent there. Another man whose father worked in the film industry in Los Angeles in the 1920s explained how early records were made. And a woman centenarian told me how ladies tended to their personal hygiene.

Settings are important

Settings are important to me, and the locations in my books are based on actual places. Crane’s Castle in Ipswich, Massachusetts (former summer home of the plumbing magnate Richard Crane) served as inspiration in Never Try to Catch a Falling Knife. The second book in my series, What the Walls Know, takes place in an eerie seaside castle much like the Gothic Revival home of inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. in Gloucester. The Peirce-Nichols House in Salem, Massachusetts, designed by Samuel McIntire in 1782, served as the prototype for the mansion in book three The Goddess of Shipwrecked Sailors. For the sake of authenticity, I visited every house, restaurant, hotel, museum, train station, store, library, factory building, cemetery, and park I’ve written about, from Boston’s Gardner Museum to Salem’s Old Burying Point Cemetery, from New York’s Penn Station and Carnegie Hall to the fishing docks of Gloucester, Massachusetts. If it’s mentioned in my books, and if such a place still exists––for sadly some have been destroyed––I’ve been there.

In the process of writing my Lizzie Crane series, I’ve learned about clipper ships, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, art forgery, pipe organs, bootlegging, Ouija boards, merry-go-rounds, elevators, and many other things I didn’t realize I wanted to know. And every day I discover something else. Does anyone out there have an interesting story to share about the Roaring Twenties?


  1. In my researches, I came across the birth of the “bathing beauty.” Local seaside promoters were trying to extend the commercial possibilities of the “shoulder season” and thought a contest of female pulchritude was the way to go. The first Miss America, 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, was crowned in 1921. The emphasis was on her outgoing personality and athletic pursuits, a change from the “shrinking flower” Edwardian ideal.

  2. Good question, Susan. I just keep going until I find what I need/want to know. Often I came across all kinds of things I didn’t seek out, but which turned out to be fascinating and that gave me great ideas for my stories. I know some people find research tedious, but for me it’s great fun and I love the surprises that turn up along the way.

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