Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Writing a Mystery Set in the Fifties by Alan Cook

Dear Readers,

It is with great pleasure that I introduce today's guest blogger. Alan Cook wrote The Hayloft, a novel set in the 1950's.

Writing a Mystery Set in the Fifties
by Alan Cook

It wasn’t difficult to visualize writing The Hayloft, my high school mystery set in the 1950s, because, you see, I grew up in the fifties. I know your next question: is it autobiographical? All fiction is supposed to be autobiographical to some extent.

The quick answer is no. The book takes place in the fall of 1954 when I was a senior in high school. The protagonist, Gary Blanchard, is a senior in high school. Sheer coincidence. He has just changed schools because he got kicked out of the first one. That never happened to me. Well, I did get disciplined for doing something like what he did. I got kicked out of the National Honor Society and was given what seemed like infinite detention, but at least I wasn’t kicked out of the school. In addition, Gary’s a better basketball player than I was and better with girls. Maybe Gary is the person I wish I had been.

While writing The Hayloft, I had to think back and remember what those years were like.

Students then were not so different from students now. They strived for grades, laughed, had crushes, gossiped, played sports, drank, did stupid things. Just like today. In New York we even had to take standardized tests—the dreaded state Regents exams. However, the teachers geared the class work toward those exams and passed out booklets with previous exams in them. If you paid attention, they weren’t so bad.

Some of the teachers were good and some were terrible. Some were highly educated and had a superb grasp of the subject matter. Others took the easy way out and used the same homework assignments and tests year after year. They could run off copies in September and their work for the year was done. Lesson plans? Who needed them?

World events played in the background and affected everyone. The Korean War, so soon after World War II. Our boys were dying abroad—again. WW II cast a long shadow. When it ended, Americans took their hoarded savings and went on a spending spree. Real estate prices skyrocketed. During the war, rationing had left the stores bare. And ration coupons were doled out for necessities in miserly fashion.

But the cold war settled in and was to last for many years. The fears it engendered allowed for excesses. In the early fifties, Senator Joseph McCarthy was still looking everywhere for Communists. For most people this was just part of the daily news, but if somebody you knew was targeted, the consequences hit home.

Another product of the cold war was bomb shelters. A place you could retreat to when the nuclear war started, filled with all the necessities you needed to survive. Well, almost all. Thank goodness nobody actually had to live in them.

But back to the students. A Time Magazine article of the period told us that we had nothing to lose but our conformity. It’s true we all looked pretty much alike. The girls with their long skirts, short hair, blouses or sweaters, saddle shoes and bobby sox. No pants or shorts in school. And definitely no minis. Even cheerleader skirts fell below the knees. The boys with their khaki or corduroy pants and sport shirts. Neatly cut hair. Brush cuts in summer. Only the hoods or hood wannabes wore their hair longer, with DAs.

The girls wore ugly bloomers for gym class. It’s no wonder a clothing revolution was on the way. The boys wore neat shorts and T-shirts, but they took swimming classes naked. Naked? In the fifties? Surely you jest. I’ll bet they don’t do that now.

On the conformity issue, it’s true there weren’t a lot of revolutions going on. If a student decided to break out of the box and, say, publish a magazine imitating the then popular Confidential Magazine—you know, the kind of magazine you buy at the supermarket checkout counter containing salacious gossip about celebrities—he was in deep doodoo. Perhaps he wouldn’t actually get kicked out of school as my protagonist, Gary Blanchard, does in The Hayloft, but the consequences would not be pleasant.

But then, this was the era where, when the powers that be adapted the musical South Pacific for the big screen, they changed the words of the song, “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” from “What don’t we get? You know damn well.” to “What don’t we get? We don’t get well.” And speaking of “damn,” the director almost closed down a play at our high school because one of the student actors said “damn” instead of “darn,” as he was instructed.

And where does murder fit into all this? I have to admit there weren’t any murders at my high school. But there could have been. Our high school did have a balcony in its auditorium. Somebody could have been pushed off.

I had much fun writing The Hayloft because it took me back to my school days, although they are perhaps best remembered from a great distance. I attended the 50th anniversary reunion of the graduation of my high school class sometime during the course of writing the book and that helped put me in the mood.

I’m not planning to write any more books set in the fifties, but I do have two set in the sixties: Honeymoon for Three, a sequel to The Hayloft (but set ten years later) and Run into Trouble, a standalone set in 1969. Short stories are another matter. My story, Moon Over Murder (free to read on is set in the fifties. Is it autobiographical? Well, I washed dishes like the protagonist, Tom, does, but I didn’t have the adventures he had. Perhaps that’s the need fiction fulfills.

You can visit Alan's website and view his other titles. Click here.

The Hayloft is on sale now. The price can't be beat. Click here for a Kindle download.

Thank you so much Alan for sharing with my readers a little bit about your book, The Hayloft, and your writing experience. I really enjoyed it.



  1. I grew up in the 1960s, but your observations on the '50s are fascionating. Of course teens had sex in the '50s, only it was hushed up. Girls who "got in trouble" were sent away to have their babies and put them up for adoption. And the girl never discussed it when she came home. Plenty of classic TV shows from this era. Toward the end of the decade "rock and roll" started to heat up. However, a woman's place was definately in the home. The "working girl" was only a temporary stage before marriage and babies (this is the generation that created the baby boom)--unless one ended up as a dreaded "old maid." Interesting times indeed.
    Sally Carpenter

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Sally. Every decade has its similarities and its differences, but deep down, people are the same. I am amazed at how every 25 years or so the styles and fashions seem to come around into vogue. I remember in the late 60's when street length coats and skirts were popular, and my mother said she wished she'd kept her clothes from when she was a girl because it was all in style again -- she was talking late 40's styles.

  2. Alan, thanks for sharing your insights into writing set in the 50's. Not everything was Happy Days or Father Knows Best. The country was recovering from two wars, and experiencing a growth in the economy and in expectations that were unprecedented in American history. I look forward to reading your next books.