23

I'm working on a project (for a game) that needs to have a strongly 1950s feel. I, however, was born in the 1980s, so my writing has plenty of things that would sound out of place in the 1950s.

For example, I used the work "backpack" in a piece set in the 1940s, and people older than me thought it sounded odd. Google Ngrams agrees wholeheartedly. I couldn't even think of an alternative word!

What can I do to make sure my writing wouldn't seem out of place in the 1950s?

Note: I'm not looking for slang. Lists of era-specific slang are all over the internet, but peppering my writing with a bunch of slangy phrases won't do anything to get rid of my modern habits.

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    That's a great question! and I've no idea, but I suspect the thought is going to bug me for the rest of the day – Michael B Jun 5 '15 at 8:41
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    FWIW, you could have use "Rucksack" which was coined in 1866, or "Haversack" ( 1740-50 ), or "Knapsack" ( c. 1600 ). All would have been used by some people in the 1950s. My usual process is to find a word that predates the era in question by enough time for that word to become commonplace. When you come across a word that seems out of place, google it's etymology, if it's from the same era or later, you may want to use something else, if it predates it by at least a decade, you're probably safe. – WeRelic Jun 5 '15 at 16:22
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    using the Ngrams tool you linked to, I tried a bunch of synonyms and it seems that "carryall" was pretty popular in the 40s-50s. – Henry Taylor Jun 5 '15 at 21:07
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    read lots of books from the 50s which take place in the 50s. how else? – Apologize and reinstate Monica Jun 5 '15 at 22:52
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    Even more important than the words are the uses of objects. "Backpacks" are used today for many purposes that I don't remember being common uses of "haversacks" in the 1950's. It is not just a matter of finding synonyms, but finding what people actually did and used. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 6 '15 at 22:07

10 Answers 10

11

Since concern is not adding fifties-relevant details (which can be found by research) but rather omitting things that you take for granted and don't notice, but that wouldn't have been present in the 50's: Find two or three people who are old enough to remember the fifties, and have them proof-read your draft. Ask them to point out anything that feels anachronistic, or that breaks the illusion of your piece having been written in that era.

16

For an instructive comparison, look at Stephen King's description of the 1950s in his book 11/22/63, about a man who goes back from modern times to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination, but has to enter the era in 1958 and wait five years. King goes to great pains to describe differences between the present times and that era: it's about the way a root beer tastes, the stiff feel of new blue jeans, the smell of cars without catalytic converters.

The differences may seem small, but they are striking, and they will be striking to modern readers. That said, nobody who was alive during the 1950s (or any other historical period) would be likely to remark on what to them would seem commonplace. Root beer tastes like root beer. New jeans feel like new jeans. Characters in your tale will not have the benefit of your own hindsight. Still, you're writing for modern readers, and unless you are talking about the unlikely situation King writes about, you're going to have to do something different.

Part of what makes great historical fiction is not the attention to detail, but in the writer's ability to identify and illuminate the characters' attitudes towards the details of their existence. You can't really have a character think, for example, how odd it is to sit in the front seat of a car going 70 miles an hour while not wearing a seat belt, but you can tell how such an activity might make a character nervous. (I myself am old enough to remember feeling very vulnerable in such situations.) Or you might not want to describe a DA haircut or a poodle skirt out of the blue, but you could definitely describe a character's reaction to those (which would give you an organic entrée into describing them). Even unremarkable things can play to someone's world view: who did this character think he was, to wear a hoodlum haircut like that?

Above all, read items from the period. Novels, sure, but get hold of some newspapers and read them cover to cover. Look at the ads. See what people in the pictures seem to be thinking. A picture can tell you a lot about someone's attitudes, while displaying artifacts that might be usable in your fiction.

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    I joined the group just so I could +1 this. Beautiful answer. Describing the character's reactions, making the external internal, is the best solution. Anything else is going to seem heavy-handed. – dodgethesteamroller Jun 5 '15 at 15:51
9

General Observations

As others have observed, preserving the illusion is not so much a matter of inserting expressions and details as keeping jarring anachronistic expressions and details out.

It is important not to use words and expression which were invented later or were so little known in the 1950's that your readers would think they were invented later. Also watch out for words which have changed meaning or part of speech.

It can also be jarring if characters violate rules of behavior and nobody notices. If someone calls his boss "John" other characters should react to the offense perhaps by saying "That's Mr. Smith to you!" or using the word "insubordination".

Too-modern Expressions

The words and expressions in this section have become widely used in ordinary speech only recently. Before that they were considered errors, very rarely used, or used only by a particular community such as doctors.

  • Do not say "injected him with [something]" unless you are writing a medical paper. Say "gave him a shot of [something]".
  • Do not say "embedded with". Better to say "a piece of wood with shrapnel embedded in it".
  • Do not say "he was a threat" or "he posed a threat". You can say "He threatened."
  • Do not attribute failure to "a perfect storm" since this is a reference to a 2000 movie of the same name. The phrase was used earlier, but it meant something else. An example would be "The baby let forth a perfect storm of shrieks."
  • Do not say "out of an abundance of caution". (This term has been popularized in the last five years by public officials explaining their seeming overreactions to perceived dangers.)
  • Do not say "held on $1000 bond". Say "held in lieu of $1000 bond".
  • Saying "5000 troops" makes no sense because troop still means a body of soldiers as in "a second troop set out led by Jones". Say "5000" men or "5000 soldiers".
  • Do not say "even as we speak" since it started becoming popular only after 1980. (Confirmed using Google Ngram viewer.)
  • Avoid using transitive verbs reflexively. The ship did not "launch", it "was launched". The portcullis did not "lower", it "was lowered". The lotion did not "absorb", it "was absorbed". The package did not "ship", it "was shipped".
  • Do not call problems "issues" since this is a modern euphemism. At this time "issue" means "a topic for discussion or argument".
  • Make sure you know the difference between "lay" and "lie". Mixing them up was not as common as it is now.
  • Do not use the word "terrorist". It was not widely used in the 1950's and probably meant something different than it does today.
  • Do not use "gender" as a euphemism for "sex". Say "her sex", "the female sex", "on the basis of sex". Do not use the word "gender" at all unless you are talking about grammar.
  • The phrase "as such" does not yet mean "since this is so". Its approximate meaning is "in such a role". For example, "A dealer shall not act as such unless he is licensed."
  • Do not use "impacted" unless you are talking about teeth since it means "crammed into a tight space". Do not use "impact" as a verb. Do say "had an impact".
  • Do not use verbs as nouns without adding the necessary endings. Say "the invitation" rather than "the invite", "a consultation" rather than "a consult", "the construction" rather than "the build".
  • Do not use "upgrade" in the sense of "to install something better" since such usage is still very very rare. You can use it to say things like "It is difficult to start a car on an upgrade."
  • Do not "generate interest" or "generate a letter". Do "generate electricity".
  • Do not use "access" as a verb as in "we were able to access the inner room". Say "We gained access to the inner room." or "We got into the inner room."
  • Use "author" only as a noun. Say "The author of Tom Sawyer is Mark Twain." Do not say "Mark Twain authored Tom Sawyer." or "Tom Sawyer was authored by Mark Twain."
  • Say "place of business" rather than just "business" in phrases such as "I visited him at his place of business."

Addressing People

  • The titles "Mr.", "Mrs.", and "Miss" are used routinely. "Ms." would not be. Ladies are often introduced or introduce themselves using the title so that the new acquaintance will know which to use. For example, a mature woman who had never been married might say "Hello, I am Miss Smith."

  • A younger person could address an older person by first name in social settings only if the older person had said "please call me [first name]". Even then the younger person would frequently not be comfortable doing so and ignore the request. Customers would never be addressed by first name unless they were children.

  • Babies are frequently referred to as "it" as in "I changed its diaper."

  • A waitress is addressed simple as "Miss".

  • Middle aged men frequently address women as "my dear" which is short for "my dear madam". This is considered polite.

Self Service

  • Gas stations are full service. When cars enter they run over a black rubber hose which causes a bell to ring. An attendant (often a young man working at his first job) comes out. The driver says either "Fill `er up!" or says how many gallons or dollar's worth he wants. While the tank fills, the attendant may wash the windshield or even check the oil level.

  • A person may serve himself in a department store, but a few minutes after he enters a clerk will approach him and say something like "Can I help you find anything?" Unless the customer sends him away he will help the customer to make his selections and will receive a commission. Some goods which nowadays customers take themselves are sold from behind counters much like the jewelry or perfume counters in some present-day stores.

  • In restaurants, coffee shops, and lunch counters the customers are seated or seat themselves and wait to be served.

  • However, there is a chain of cafeterias called Automats. The food is displayed behind little glass doors in the wall. Customers insert coins to open the doors and take the food to eat at tables.

  • If you telephone an office your call will be answered by a switchboard operator who will connect it to the correct internal phone by inserting plugs into the switchboard. The operator is frequently a girl sitting in the lobby. Outgoing calls likely have to go through her too. Desk telephone generally do not have direct access to outside lines, so the user picks up the phone and says "Get me ________."

Indelicate Subjects

Do not use the word "pregnant". You can refer vaguely to a lady's "condition". If you have to be more explicit, say that she "is going to have a baby".

Make no reference to bodily excretions (excrement, urine, sweat, saliva). You may refer to blood. You may say "drooling".

Do not make any reference direct or indirect to primary sex organs. During previous decades some authors made one dignified reference to the general shape and size of the heroin's breasts. They did not of course make any reference to nipples.

Do not use the word "sex" to mean the sex act as in "have sex". Such usage was just beginning in the 1950's and did not become mainstream until the 1960's (and even then was considered slang).

Freely use the word "sex" to mean maleness or femaleness as in "a characteristic of her sex".

You can use "sex" to mean the full range of mating behaviors, but getting this right is tricky.

You can use "sex" to mean the influence pretty girls have over men. To say that a girl "is using sex to get what she wants" would mean that she is flirting, not prostituting herself.

Though the word "gay" had been used to mean homosexual in a movie (Bringing up Baby) in 1938, the meaning of "bright, happy" is still the accepted one. Homosexuality would not be discussed in public, though men might occasionally imply that others were gay perhaps by describing them as "effeminate".

Remember that "making love" is still understood to mean courting behavior such as visiting a girl and talking to her in a way calculated to win her affection. For example, in the 1949 film "The Inspector General" the line "He made love to my wife." means "He has been stealing my wife's affections."

Avoid modern self-consciously gender-neutral language. (And see the above caution about the word "gender".) Do not say things like "everyone can take as much as he or she wants". Just say "he", it will not even occur to anyone that you might be referring to males only. Nor will anyone think that expressions such as "a man must choose his own path" exclude females. Change the ending of words such as "chairperson" or "congressperson" back to "-man". Have women say things like "I am the chairman of the committee." (Though saying "chairwoman" is OK too.)

Also watch out for new words which have been coined or popularized to avoid works ending in -men. Examples are "letter carrier" (for mailman), "fire fighter" (for fireman), "police officer" (for policeman), "trash collector" (for trash man), and "fisher" for "fisherman".

Role of Women and Girls

During the Second World War women performed many jobs previously done by men. So much change so quickly gave rise to a lot of questions, anxiety, and tension about whether women would return to female roles, whether they would deprive men of jobs, and whether they would continue to work primarily at home. Judging from movies of the time, men were concerned that increased female independence might mean that their wives would not need them.

During the 1950's female characters ceased to take an active role in adventure stories. In the 1910's, 1920's and 1930's there were helpless heroins, but many girls and young women in books and movies were resourceful and took initiative. They drove cars, lept into raging rivers to save their boyfriends, would sometimes kill bad guys with knives or guns when attacked. They also constantly turned detective.

These activities were seen as complementary to what the male characters were doing, not competitive. They did not act like men while doing these things. Generally they did not dress like men. They did not try to best men in feats of physical strength such a dueling with swords. But they frequently excelled men in fortitude and courage.

But in the 1950's they became helpless and passive. No longer did they try to rescue the hero or free him from false accusation. If he were attacked and down they would stand and scream rather than looking for a weapon. In the most poorly written plots they did little more than keep him company, ride as a passenger in his car, say supportive words, and get kidnapped and threatened by his enemies.

Since you are not actually writing for a 1950's audience, you can make your female characters more courageous and resourceful. You can use Princess Leia from Star Wars as a model since she is one of the few believable adventure heroins we have today. But you should keep in mind that what they can do will be restricted by an anxious society and anxious men. Your heroins will likely have to let men drive the car most of the time and will have to choose between marriage and career.

Manners

A younger person rises from his chair when introduced to an older person. If he is male he will remove his hat, at least momentarily, as a sign of respect.

The younger person will say "sir" and "ma’am" and address the older person as "Mr.", "Mrs.", or "Miss" followed by the last name. The older woman will say something such as "I am Mrs. Smith." so that the younger person will use which honorific to use.

If a lady comes to a dinner table, perhaps in a restaurant, and men are already seated they will all rise until she is seated. One of them will help her with her chair. If she excuses herself, the men will rise and stand until she has left the table.

Men are not permitted to enter formal dining rooms without jackets. Frequently ladies are not permitted to enter alone. It is politely suggested that she wait in a waiting area until the man with whom she is dining has arrived.

Swear words and off-color humor are not used "in mixed company" which means when females are present.

Women's rest rooms are actually rest rooms, that is a lounge area with couches. The toilet facilities are reached by passing through this room. There is often a female attendant in the outer room to help with makeup, hair, clothes, etc. It is proper to give her tips. A lady who needs to use the toilet will say that she is going to the "powder room" or that she needs to powder her nose.

When a man and a woman dine together in a restaurant she is considered to be his guest. Naturally he covers all expenses.

When an engagement to be married is announced it is appropriate to congratulate the man. It is not considered polite to congratulate the lady, since this might imply she was desperate. Instead one should say, "I am sure you will be very happy."

A lady can unilaterally break off an engagement for any reason at all or for no reason at all. As they say, "a girl can change her mind". A man cannot, barring some truly shocking revelation about his intended.

Clothing

Jeans are still considered work clothes. One would not go out in public in them. Men who work in offices wear business suits and buy them with two pair of pants. They would also wear hats to the office. The hats would be removed when they got to work. At home they might remove the jackets before dinner and loosen their neckties after dinner.

Women wear skirts and dresses when they go out in public. Some women occasionally wore pants or shorts while at home, camping, or at the beach, but they would definitely change before going anywhere else. Skirts tend to be full and all of about the same length (dictated by the year's fashion). Stockings are absolutely required. Women likely also wear girdles, slips (petticoats), and hats. When going to dinner or a play they would frequently wear white gloves. While men would remove their hats indoors, women generally would not.

Adults would dress rather formally when attending sporting events.

Very few facilities have air conditioning. Indoor movie theaters and department stores may. Offices, schools, and churches generally do not. In summer men may work "in their shirtsleeves" and women often wear sundresses. A sundress is a light-weight dress which generally has no sleeves, leaves the shoulders bare, and is supported by narrow straps. They were worn by conservative women who today might consider them daring.

Sex

Attitudes about sex are changing, but the sexual revolution is still a decade or more away. Standards of sexual conduct are much stricter, especially for females. This is seen mainly as a question of character and of the welfare of unmarried girls rather than a religious issue.

It is common knowledge that some young men seek sexual experience before marriage. This is more acceptable if they do it away from home and with women who are already sexually experienced. Some landlords do not want their properties associated with such activity and will come and knock and say the girl has to leave. In a hotel the person who does this is called the house detective.

Unmarried females are divided into two social groups. Their are "good girls" who do not "have sex" (as we say nowadays) until they are married and "that kind of girl" who does. Men marry the first kind, some choose to have fun first with the second kind. But they would still expect their bride to be a virgin on their wedding night. Suggesting that a man is sleeping with his fiancee is a good way to start a fistfight. Some do sleep together, but no decent man would compromise the reputation of the girl he loved by talking about it.

There is a great deal of concern that young men seeking sexual adventures may take unfair advantage of "good girls" who are too young and inexperienced to recognize what the young man's "intentions" are. He might try to get her alone in an apartment or in a parked car. A girl who is wise to such a young may tell him "I am not that kind of girl."

Nobody would want such a young man to ruin the life of his daughter or sister or any girl he cared about. Young men generally know which of their peers are "not very nice young men" and tend to run interference for girls they care about.

It is easy to find exceptions to what I described above. There were parts of the culture where different standards prevailed. I have not attempted to describe the attitudes of sailors, free thinkers, the very poor, the very rich, gangsters, or motion picture actors. I am describing mainstream attitudes.

I should also point out that though Hollywood had been known for sexual freedom for more than three decades already, Hollywood films of the 1940's and 1950's still largely reflect the attitudes described above. I am not talking about censorship and the Hayes office. I mean that Hollywood made these ideas pivotal to numerous film plots because they resonated strongly with mainstream audiences.

Some plots which contain these ideas:

  • Tammy and the Bachelor (1957): hero goes out looking for girl who as a guest in his house has gone off on a date with a young man of bad reputation.

  • Guys and Dolls (1955): professional gambler bets he can take a specific good girl on a jaunt to Cuba with him. Once he has her there and has her drunk he realizes he loves her and want to marry her but knows the only way he can do that is if he takes her home without bedding her. He tells the friend with whom he made that bet that he did not take her to Cuba and pays up.

  • Operation Petticoat (1959): story of army nurses and sailors living at close quarters in a submarine provides numerous examples of how questions of sex were handled and discussed.

Communications Technology

  • Televisions are black and white. They receive few channels. Because long distance video link-ups are difficult, much of the programming is local. Because video tape is not yet available most of the entertainment programs are done live with no possibility of reruns.

  • In many areas local calls can be direct dialed, but the operator will still put it through for you if you dial zero. The operator will probably say "Number please."

  • If you need the police, you don't dial 911. You pick of the phone, dial zero and when the operator asks you for the number say "Get me the police."

  • Direct dialing of long distance calling was only possible between a few specific cities. Most of the time you would have to call the operator. You might have to wait several minutes for your call to be put through. You would hang up and the operator would call you back when she had your party on the line.

  • Long distance calls are very expensive. If you used someone else's phone, you would leave him money to pay for the call. One would call long distance only with good reason and would keep the call very short, well under five minutes. If you were calling a friend or relative, you would almost certainly wait until the end of business hours when the rates were lower. If you called a place of business, you would announce immediately that you were calling long distance. Your call would be handled as quickly as possible.

  • Because people did not have cell phones, they spent a lot of time looking for one another.

6

Given that this is for a game and not for an original story or novel, I would pick a specific author from that actual time period --one with the feel I was looking for --and try to immerse myself in his or her work. I find whenever I do that, I unconsciously (and fortunately temporarily) pick up speech patterns and phrases, whether I want to or not.

That's not always a good thing if you're trying to produce original work, but in the setting of a game, it should function more as a tribute than as a theft (and obviously you wouldn't be copying actual passages, just the overall feel).

6

If you really want to make something feel right for the era, you need to also capture the real morality and values of the era.

It's fatal to feel of the era, especially if your test is for people who lived in the era, to depict characters from historical eras somehow magically have the ethical and moral sensibilities of present. My grandmother is 103 years old and very often when we discuss something in the past some moral matter will come up and she will say, "People thought differently about that back then," or "most people didn't know any better." My grandmother could instantly peg a character as out of place anytime in America from the early 1920s to the early 1990s based on their moral stances alone.

I think it is extremely difficult to create relatable characters, especially protagonist who hold the mainstream or even advance moral views of their era, when we have today have evolved past that morality. But the failure to do so will never create a highly believable character, especially if your target audience is people who lived in the time or have even studied it in any detail. I spot moral anachronism constantly, and they often yank me out of the story.

(As an aside, I think the best example I have seen of modern writers working very hard to capture the true feel of an era can be seen in the Cohen's Brother's remake of "True Grit". They pretty much nailed the manners, language and even the cadence of speech of the 1870s. But a lot of people complain that can't follow the dialog.)

You also have to deal with modern taboos such as the "N"-word. It's one of our strongest contemporary taboos, one of the few remaining that will get you ejected from polite society in an instant for using it.

But that wasn't always the case and that causes problems for writing dialog for a historically accurate story

In the the 19th century, it wasn't considered an insult, unless applied to a white person in which case it had the same connotation as calling someone in Europe a "peasant."

You can see this writings in the Civil War. . Fredrick Douglas seems to have been the person who first fixed it as a pejorative but most people regardless of their views on slavery or civil rights didn't see it as such. Even some abolitionist used the word, apparently unconsciously and those who weren't ardent abolitionist gave its use no thought at all. Reading their unedited writings is wince inducing even if they were people literally fighting and dying specifically to end slavery.

Even well up until the 1950s, many people white and black did think much of it. It was not until the 1960s that it became universally regarded as a pejorative and not till the 1970s taboo.

Yet, accurately depicting the historical frequency of the use of "N"-word in a story set in any era prior to the late 1960s, such that it would meet the test of someone from the era would, likely destroy the ability of the contemporary readers to enjoy or remain immersed in the story because every violation of the taboo would yank them out of the story.

I would be one of those people. I can't even tolerate the new "soft-R" version much liked by Rap artist. I literally flinch when I hear even the(largely) socially acceptable version because such a deep moral revulsion was drilled into me against the "hard R" version in the 70s when the taboo was being consciously setup in the culture. I can't comfortably watch or listen to any media that contains either version, it at all but the most minimal frequency and every use of it yanks me out of the story or drive me from the room. Can't even watch documentaries sometimes and even original historical sources are unpleasant.

I probably miss some good stories out their sometimes, but a taboo is an emotional safe guard, and I will never lose that one. No author, no matter how skilled, could write a story with an historically accurate frequency of the N-word, that I could possibly read without constantly controlling my since of revulsion. I would never enjoy the story or seek it out.

All artist eventual encounter limitations to their arts, either in themselves, or their audience. But if you really want to nail the feel of an era, to the extent it will pass the test of someone like my grandmother, you'd have to go that extreme.

  • 1
    I agree with all this but the last paragraph. For all the world-feel OP wants, ultimately they are writing for a modern audience. Racism is a case in point but see also homophobic language and misogynistic language. At best you can come off as gritty, but more likely it'll break your reader's engagement in the universe as you say. And if that happens, what was the point in bothering with it in the first place? Just because some things were common, doesn't mean you need to use them. – Smalltown2k Jun 7 '15 at 12:00
5

Your reader's intuition about the word "backpack" seems right on; that word appears to have skyrocketed in popularity after the 1960s: enter image description here

You can use ngrams and a thesaurus to identify words that didn't seem popular, or to verify which of several words were more popular during a certain period. Note, however, that ngrams is difficult to interpret at times, because of textual errors, the inability to distinguish between certain kinds of usage (e.g. a noun may have been around for a long time, but the verb form of that noun may be new).

The main drawback, obviously, is that you have to check words manually. I don't know of a tool that can check a word list for anachronisms automatically. I suspect such a tool wouldn't be hard to make, given the number of corpuses available now.

  • Something as simple as a tool to make a call to the NGRAM API with a list of words and a given date range could give the OP what he needs. He'd need to find a friend (or do it himself) to write some simple code though. – Andrew Alexander Jun 6 '15 at 15:33
3

My immediate thought is that this isn't a question about 1950's style, it is a question about our interpretation of 1950's style. (a background process in my brain is trying to remember the style of Fallout 3, which was of a similar period)

Obviously a lot of it would depend on who it is that you're depicting. A group of gangsters are going to be considerably different than a group of politicians - in their speech, that is (or insert your own joke)

But in saying that, formal conversation will feel a lot more 'old fashioned' so I would use slang very sparingly, maybe giving each character a few words that they can slip into conversations (or however it will work)

One source you could use, to get an idea of the language would be to look through letters to newspapers. It is mostly direct from the public so should be relatively informal, and you can choose your demographic by what paper you research from.

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    Basically, I'm trying to make it feel right to people who lived through that era. I'm not worried about making it feel "1950s" to younger people. – Joe Jun 5 '15 at 9:17
  • I think even then, it is as much - if not more - about how that time is remembered, than how it actually was. – Michael B Jun 5 '15 at 9:19
3

I generally agree with the comments from Michael B, though I understand that the OP wants to describe details that would be real to someone that had lived in that time.

As a starting point, research classic films that were both set and created within the 1950's, perhaps something by Hitchcock. You want to find directors that, being motivated to keep costs down, would focus upon depicting a simple, yet typical, backdrop for the actors. Watch for the little details that the actors perform without being scripted, such as how they handle equipment or address one another informally.

To supplement the film depiction of 1950's life, newspapers and news reels would be useful for getting a sense of the topical issues that were important to people living in that era.

3

If you already have some sense for which words seem iffy, another good source for checking this type of stuff is the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The main downside is the paywall if you're not affiliated with a subscribing institution. For every word the OED gives you a list of example usage throughout various time periods, generally starting with earliest known written usage. Combine it with ngram for more precision.

Here's an example entry for the word "backpack":

back-pack, n. Etymology: back- comb. form 1a(c), pack n.1 1. Chiefly U.S.

A pack carried on the back; spec. one consisting of a folded parachute. Also attrib.

1914 Outing June 312/1 By folding a blanket..it is convenient as a back-pack.

1921 Outing Mar. 254/1 How about that little back-pack tent you are going to have for your trip?

1930 C. Dixon Parachuting 160 (caption) The Back Pack is usually used.

1946 W. F. Burbidge From Balloon to Bomber iii. 45 One type [of parachute] is carried on the airman's lap..a ‘back pack’ fastens below the shoulders.

1966 Economist 23 July 353/1 The back-pack manoeuvering unit that was to have been tried out by Gemini 9.

1969 Times 22 July (Moon Rep.) p. i/3 The mass of the back-pack does have some effect on inertia.

Derivatives

back-pack v. intr., to carry a pack on the back: used esp. of hiking, camping, etc. Also trans.

1956 D. Leechman Native Tribes Canada 37 Whatever was not carried on the toboggans had to be backpacked.

back-packer n.

1946 Trail & Timberline June 88/1 (D.A.), The deplorable housing situation could never really affect a certain group of enthusiasts known as back-packers.

back-packing n.

1916 H. Kephart Camping & Woodcraft I. 143 Back-packing is the cheapest possible way to spend one's vacation in the wilderness.

1940 W. S. Gilkison Peaks, Packs xiii. 102 Swagging—or, if you prefer it, back-packing—is more or less an essential part of every climbing trip.

1961 Times 18 July 11/6 Back-packing is the only means of transport.

As you can see, the word isn't actually that anachronistic, rather it looks like wide-spread usage hadn't yet caught on by the 50s.

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You could find books written in the 1950s. Fiction books written during that time could help, to give an idea of how people spoke, how language was used, etc. Newspapers (as Michael B suggests) are a very good suggestion, but may be a bit dry. Letters would be much better, I think, and diaries could be very useful as well. You can also benefit from the research of others, and look at recent films and books set during that period, but any mistakes they made could be carried across into your work.

However, I suspect you've already answered your own question: I used the word "backpack" in a piece set in the 1940s, and people older than me thought it sounded odd. Speak to people who lived through that period. Speak to members of your family, go to retirement home and ask if anyone would be willing to chat, ask your friends if they know someone who could talk with you.

Better yet, just write, and get people from that era to review it later. Writing is the most important part; you can always edit it later to sound correct. Try not to get too bogged down in making it sound right until after the story's written.

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