I'm setting the book I'm writing in the 1900s ~ 1950s, in the central states of the US: Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. I'm having difficulty getting the language for narration and dialogue correct for the period. Does anyone know of resources that would help in that regard?

A disclaimer: I'm a beginner. Additionally, English is not my native language, but here we are, I'm attempting fiction in a foreign language.

2 Answers 2


Writing accurate dialogue for a time period other than the one you live in can be particularly challenging. Here's how I would approach it.

Read literature and novels written during the 1920's or set in the 1920's. The best way to know how people talked is to read books written during or set within your target time period. For your specific query, off the top of my head I'd recommend you read Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse, a novel about the Dust Bowl set in the 30's.

Watch movies set in the 20's. To see if the dialogue you want to put in your book flows, listen to actors say it out loud, in context! Here is a blog post I found listing user-recommended movies set in the 20's that are useful for modeling your dialogue.

Research 1920's slang, and the 20's themselves. One Google search got me here, to a page full of 20's slang. A few results down here is slang used by 20's and 30's flappers. Here is a Wikipedia page all about the Roaring Twenties.

And, of course, when you think you've crafted accurate dialogue, have someone read it. If they think it sounds awkward or inaccurate, change things up, and try again. Writing is sometimes a trial and error process.

  • 1
    Excellent answer, thank you. It looks like google works differently for you. Those links are valuable, but I'm afraid to mix country and city slangs. I'd like to have a distinguishable difference between city folk and country folk.
    – iamtowrite
    Commented Mar 10, 2019 at 20:01
  • I'd like to stress the point that, to be the most useful, the books and movies need to be set in the Midwest. If, trying to escape the "city language", one would embrace "country language", there is a great danger to actually master Southern American English.
    – Alexander
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 18:10

If you read some of the newspapers written at the time, you might notice that the level of literacy expected of the reader was higher than it is now. The level of discourse was higher.

If you want to represent some of the excesses of the period, F Scott Fitzgerald wrote quite a few fine works that capture the era. John Steinbeck wrote well of some of the miseries of the time, the hardships overcome and the obstacles faced.

My mother grew up during the dirty thirties and lived with poverty, drought and much love. My grandfather became a farmer to provide for his family, but knew little about the task he set himself. He worked with horses - not the type often shown as draught horses, but any horse that could fill that role. One neighbor was a bit more extreme in his methods than my grandfather. He found a badger in a slough on his land and decided it had to go. He and the neighbor dug after that badger for hours, finally catching and killing it. The next evening, they were invited to supper by the neighbor and enjoyed a fine stew. Meat of any kind was a treat, so it was eaten eagerly. Only later did they learn it was badger stew.

Read newspapers of the time and try to find ones for the locations you want to feature. Language was used more precisely as people were encouraged to speak well.

Do not assume the people of Oklahoma will talk like the people of Kansas. There are similarities, of course, but differences as well.

An American can, after a few minutes conversation, ask the other which part of Kansas they come from - some have such a fine ear for accent that they will know the town itself. No one ever asked what state they come from - that is clear from speech. Idiom and accent combine to make each state unique in speech and pattern, though the similarities will outweigh the differences. If there is an error or confusion, it is usually caused by the person in question having lived multiple places and his speech reflects the blended history of his residence.

People from that region tend to be polite and hospitable. Of course, some of the most vicious criminals of the time hailed from that area.

Choose one state and one era. It will simplify matters for you and eliminate the risk of some reader from Nebraska noting you confuse them with Oklahoma.

There was a tv show about a Depression Era family called the Waltons. My father was impressed by the level of detail that went into it - including costumes. Everything was clearly handsewn as sewing machines were less prevalent then.

I am sure you won’t do this, but please get the geography right. If you choose Kansas and write about characters going to the capital of Kansas - don’t call it Kansas City. Such an error could be jarring and the reader might continue only to catalogue your errors.

The 1904 Sears catalogue is an amazing resource for items that could be in any home. While it does not have dialogue, the item descriptions are subtly different from what one would expect now.

  • 1
    Although giving thanks is discouraged here, I do thank you for the unique and specific perspective. I found The Waltons on Amazon and will be watching it. Do you think I should match the discourse level of the time? Given that I'm writing to readers of today?
    – iamtowrite
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 6:11
  • 1
    I do think that you should match the discourse level of the era. Modern readers can understand more than they are given credit for. Be as true to the time as you can.
    – Rasdashan
    Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 14:02

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