Top 5 tricks for writing for a time period

Speeches are a great source of inspiration for dialogue!
Speeches are a great source of inspiration for dialogue!

One of the hurdles of writing dialogue for a story based in the past (in my case 1930s London) is that you have to keep reminding yourself of how people talked way back then. Everything from slang to formality of language has to be kept in mind — even for the simplest scenes.

So here is my Top 5 List of tips:

  1. Read as much non-fiction as you can from the time and place you are writing about. This can include newspaper articles and magazines, but in the case of really really bygone eras, may include translations a limited number of books preserved from that period.
  2. Read published speeches, honestly, though more formal than your dialogue is going to be, I find the way people wrote things that they then spoke aloud to an audience is a great source.
  3. Read other writer’s fiction that is based in the same era (so people like us!)
  4. Use the internet as a resource (obviously). I for example have two dialects to keep track of — Portia’s which is based out of 1930’s San Francisco and everyone else she interacts with (who are very much based out of 1930’s London). I like to use University Libraries, like this one to get ideas about how people wrote to each other and spoke about events happening at the time.
  5. Watch movies from that era (if you can) or about that era (in the hopes that the filmmaker did HER due-diligance in researching the dialogue before committing pixel to film). For the 1930s in London, Wikipedia has a lovely list I have been culling through of films released in this time period. I find after watching one of these movies I am usually inspired to re-write a scene of dialogue to try and make it even more authentic.

What are your tips and tricks friends?


Scotland Yard

New Scotland Yard
New Scotland Yard

For my next scene, I needed to have a better understanding of the layout of Scotland Yard, so chased down the architect – Richard Norman Shaw, and found some very interesting documents about him.

I also found some data here at and compared it to Wikipedia and a few others:

The original New Scotland Yard was at Whitehall. In 1890, the Metropolitan Police moved into Norman Shaw’s celebrated purpose-built headquarters overlooking the Thames on the newly built Victoria Embankment. Described by one commentator as, ‘a very constabulary kind of castle,’[1] it was an eclectic building typical of the emerging Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century with numerous busy motifs. It was finished in striped red brick with Portland stone and characterised by a skyline of turrets and a steep roof patterned by dormers and lofty chimneys. The original building provided 140 offices and they were assigned according to rank. High-ranking officers were given rooms within the turrets overlooking the river or larger rooms close to ground floor, while lower ranking officers were consigned to smaller rooms higher up. The original single building was joined by two extensions both overseen by the Met surveyor and closely mimicking Shaw’s design. Despite the much-enlarged complex, as early as the 1930’s there were complaints of overcrowding and the force eventually left the site for the present building on Victoria Street in 1967.

That image above comes from the Metropolitan Police Service’s page on the history of Scotland Yard.

I also found this detailed PDF of the history of the Norman Shaw buildings here.

Interestingly, the New Scotland Yard was supposedly “the first public building in its entirety to be lit by electricity. [3] This electricity was provided by its own generator, thus freeing it from any interruption to its telegraph and later its 999 emergency system.” – which is important to this casebook (see my post on Vaults for a hint as to why 😉

Character Profile: Brian Dawes

I’m starting a new category in this blog for character profiles (you can find them all here), and I think I’m going to start with Constable Brian Dawes, seeing as he is so central to the next casebook I am writing.

You might ask why I don’t start with the heroine of my series, Miss. Portia Adams, and the answer is that I did one for her when I first launched this blog, and you can find it in this post titled Keeping track of it all.

Using that post as a template, here is my character profile of Brian Dawes:

BrianFULL NAME: Brian Kevin Dawes, AKA Constable Dawes, Constable at Scotland Yard

AGE: in 1929 he is 24-years-old, therefore born in December 1905.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Brown eyes, 6’2″ tall, slim but athletic build, dark thick hair, dimples when he smiles, which is often, with a kind handsome face. In the latest casebook (8) he exhibits some minor form of claustrophobia while trapped in the bank vault.

LOCATION: London, lives in the lower apartment of 221 Baker St

EDUCATION: Basic schooling in London, joined Scotland Yard as a Constable in 1929.

PREFERENCES: Prefers beer over wine, favours pork over other meats, enjoys wide range of vegetables, but only really likes strawberries in the fruit category. He is also an Arsenal football fan.

SOCIALLY: Has both parents living in the downstairs apartment of 221A Baker Street with him, neither of who work, and whom he therefore supports. His girlfriend is Annie Colson, whom he has been dating since 1930.

Boxing Day win: “Lost London”

Happy Holidays friends, I hope you are celebrating this time of year exactly the way you like to – whether you actually celebrate Christmas or Hanukah, or just celebrate a few days off from work to gather with the people you love (like me!)

One of the things I do love about this time of year (other than the presents, which yes, despite the lack of religious/cultural tradition, I partake in) is Boxing Day shopping.

Well, Chapters was having a 30% off hardcover sale, and look at what I brought home!

Cover of "Lost London" by Philip Davies
Cover of “Lost London” by Philip Davies

If you know a little about this series I am writing, you know it is based in 1930s London, England, making this book an awesome research resource for both my facts and imagination.

In my head, Portia Adams has walked these streets for over a year now (when I started writing about her) and the internet and the library have been my primary sources for her world. This is a beautiful book, with over 500 images from the former London County Council archive of photographs, many of which were unpublished until now.

I will be posting images from the book from time to time and for sure quoting from it in this blog (all credit to Philip Davies, and I hope he sells lots of books – link here!)

I’m 25 pages in and I have some fantastic ideas for the setting of my next crime-scene – so stay tuned my friends, and let me know about your great Boxing Day finds in the comments below!

Where to luncheon in 1930s London

I’m writing a new scene in CaseBook 7 (yup, the truck has been restarted friends, in no small part due to your encouragement and inspiring blog posts!) and I need a suitable spot for Portia to meet her friend Elaine Ridley (née Elaine Barclay, first introduced in ‘A Case of Darkness’). First I did some research on eating out in 1930s London, and found some really helpful references and supplementary writing at

Elaine is a member of London’s elite, so I need a spot suitably chi chi for her palate and standing.

A Lipton restaurant next door to Holborn Underground
This photo of 1925 shows the busy corner at Kingsway and High Holborn and is from

The first location I came up with is this Lipton restaurant which would have been located at the corner of Kingsway and High Holborn.  The restaurant here was in walking distance of the Strand and Covent Garden and right next to the Holborn tube station on the Piccadilly line.

The next restaurant option I came up with was Restaurant Boulestin which was described by Cecil Beaton (renowned photographer and interior designer) as “the prettiest restaurant in London.”  The new location featured circus-theme murals by the French artist Marie Laurencin and fabrics by Raoul Dufy. (this is all from the Wikipedia article here by the way).

Clown, wall panel from Restaurant Boulestin (mural), Laboureur, Jean-Emile (1877-1943)
Clown, wall panel from Restaurant Boulestin

As the fine folks over at The Aesthete Cooks blog describe, Boulestin is an unsung hero of French culinary art, and the writers of that blog did a fine job of recreating one of his signature meals: foie de veau. It turns out Boulestin was not only a fine chef, but a cookbook author, and on the BBC, the first Chef to have his own program about cooking.

The location of the restaurant is a little hard to lock down, but it was near Covent Gardens and the Royal Opera House, and was sadly replaced by a Pizza Hut in 1994 (reported on with sadness in many papers, including the Independent here). I <think> the Pizza Hut they are speak of is on Henrietta St.

I think this is the better of the two in terms of a scene-setter – eh?

Adding to the menu from a blog post over at The Vintage Cookbook from a Boulestin cookbook for Salade de pomme de Terre aux piments.

CaseBook Titles

bunch of books on their sides
a series in order!

Ok, don’t laugh, but as I write casebook 7 of the Portia Adams Adventures, I am forgetting the order. How is that possible you ask? Sigh, editing, re-editing, transcribing, re-reading, and re-ordering… its bound to make a girl confused.
So here is an ordered list of the completed casebooks in the series:

1. Jewel of the Thames
2. A case of darkness
3. Unfound
4. Thrice Burned
5. Box 850
6. Truth be told (title picked by the faithful readers of this blog!)
7. Principessa (tentative)
8. Settling the Score (title picked by the faithful readers of this blog!)

Dinner and a Movie in 1931

Coronet Theatre at Notting Hill
Coronet Theatre at Nottinghill Gate as taken from

I just wrote a scene where Portiais sitting on the roof deducing that Brian Dawes has just come from dinner and a movie with his girlfriend Annie Coleson, and I need some details.

Firstly, yes, cinemas existed in 1931 in London.

At first I thought the Gate Theatre (originally a studio near Covent Garden, opened I. 1925) would suffice, but it was for plays, not movies. I’ll hold onto that one for some later use.

I think the Nottinghill Coronet would be a reasonable choice.. located at Pembridge Road and Holland Park ave in Notting Hill Gate in London, it’s close enough to Baker street to make it the ‘local’ theatre.

This is from the Wikipedia article:

In 1916, films were shown at the theatre for the first time, as part of variety programmes mixing live and filmed performance.
In 1923, it became a cinema full time, and capacity was reduced from 1,143 to 1,010 seats, but it retained, as it still does, its original theatre interior, consisting of stalls and two upper tiers (a dress circle and a gallery). However, the boxes at each side of the auditorium, next to the stage, were removed in 1931. The stage has been blocked off, and the cinema screen is placed within the proscenium arch. The projection equipment is housed in the former dress circle bar.
In 1931, the cinema became part of Gaumont British Cinemas, and it was at this time that the theatre boxes were removed.

That leaves the dinner, somewhere Brian could have oysters with a special aoli Portia would recognize. This area I think has been known as Nottinghill for some time, and seems to have a rich restaurant district. I think this spot works.

Getting to the point

Holy abusive Batman! But we get your point...
Holy abusive Batman! But we get your point...

I wrote a lot today, and I have next week off work so I am hopeful that I will finish Book 6 by this time next week (cross your fingers kids!) but I am struggling with something I am sure that a lot of writers struggle with – getting to the point.

But maybe I’m struggling with the opposite of what everyone else is struggling with – I know the point – I want to get to to it, but I have to write all this exposition for that point to make sense. Get it? No? Let me explain:

I want Portia to discover the hidden compartments behind the fireplace in her apartment at 221 B Baker street, but now that I know I want that to happen, I had to write out the scene where she discovers it. So four pages later, she has been working in her attic for an hour, trying to find a good disguise for her the case she is on, and she notices the wall is an odd shape up here… different than the same wall down on the floor of her apartment. She of course gets down there as quick as she can, and after a bit of physical exploration discovers the hidden compartments (described below in my post on the diorama).

Those four pages were hard to write, and I had to keep reminding myself NOT to rush to her discovery, but to play it out, to lead the reader there while giving everyone (Portia, me, the reader) something to look forward to.

The number one complaint from people who have read books 1-3 so far is that there is not enough detail in the writing, that the ideas are great, the cases fun and interesting, but that there were a lot of opportunities to insert depth and exposition into the scenes I was writing about. I’m going to have to go back to those books and ADD more detail, but while writing Book 6, I am trying to anticipate (almost wrote pre-anticipate there but that’s not a word) the complaint that it lacks detail.

Do you have trouble writing detail, or do you have the opposite problem: taking too long to get to the point?

Looking for a London newspaper in 1930

The Daily Mirror
The Daily Mirror front page as taken from

Spending a bit of time this morning researching newspapers that were publishing in London in the 1930s.

I’m thinking of using The Daily Mirror as the oppositional newspaper to Annie Coleson’s work at The Sunday Times.

From the Wikipedia article on The Daily Mirror

Leigh Brownlee went into newspapers and he is picked out as one of the senior figures representing the Daily Mirror at the funeral of the newspaper’s then editor, Alexander Kenealy in 1915.[10] Brownlee was himself editor of the Daily Mirror from 1931 to 1934, though this was a difficult period for the newspaper, which had fallen significantly from its achievement of the first one million circulation in 1918 because of price cutting by rival newspapers. The Mirror was sold by Lord Northcliffe in the mid-1930s and Brownlee appears to have left then: the newspaper relaunched as an American-style tabloid after he left. He went into partnership in a news agency, but the partnership was dissolved in 1936.

Starting Book 6

Whitechapel prostitutes
White chapel prostitutes

Finally finished transcribing Book5/ Box 850 which means I can start in on Book 6. Actually, I started writing Book 6 before I was finished transcribing, but now I can do it without guilt!

Anyway, right off the bat, I need a clearer picture of the status of prostitutes in Britain in 1931. I think I want to incorporate them into the Baker Street Irregulars. I think they could be a nice evolution. Sherlock Holmes was able to use the street kids of England to get him information he didn’t have access to. I don’t think he ever had prostitutes as his sources of information, but I feel Portia Adams could … but I need to figure out if her upbringing and social status might make her prejudiced towards the profession.

Since Whitechapel is so well-known for housing brothels at this time, it may be a likely spot to place this book’s main events.

As part of that research I came across “Life and Labour of the people in London” by Charles Booth. I would like very much to get a ahold of the whole series, does anyone know if it has been PDFed?