filed under Her Mother's Secret, Writing Historical Fiction.

I’ve said it before, but I love the research. I think, to write historical fiction, you have to. And the research I did for Her Mother’s Secret was fun and fascinating so I thought I’d share with you what I did to make the book come to life, as well as give you an insight into how an author goes about researching historical fiction.

This is Part 2 in my series taking you behind the covers of Her Mother’s Secret. You can find Part 1 here.

The Cosmetics Industry

As the book is about the birth of the cosmetics industry in the early part of the twentieth century, the first thing I did was to read a lot about early pioneers in the industry. Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, who are both women to be admired, were the two major players.

Leo, my main character, gets a job at the Red Door salon when she arrives in New York and is as gobsmacked about the treatments she is to give clients as I was when I read about them. It was all very unscientific and wrapping faces in bandages and smoothing out fat with rollers were just two of the treatments on offer.

Interestingly, I also found out that both Rubinstein and Arden, who were always feuding, surrounded themselves with men in the management echelons of their business empires. Perhaps it was because, even into the late 1930s when the industry was a global phenomenon, business magazines like Fortune reported that nothing women like Elizabeth Arden did could possibly be compared with men in business. Fortune believed that industries such as cosmetics and fashion were on a par with cottage enterprises and could not be taken seriously, despite their profitability and their foundation in chemistry and science.

That irked me somewhat, and gave me the idea of writing about a woman who does the opposite of Arden and Rubinstein, a woman who encourages the talents of other women to help her, as Leo does with her friends Lottie and Jia.

Blindness and Beauty

The industry was completely unregulated until the 1930s, which had catastrophic consequences. An early mascara formulation, Lash Lure, included Aniline dye as an ingredient, which caused ulceration of the eye and, in several cases, the corneas of the eyes were eaten away, resulting in blindness.

Skin-whiteners with mercury as the main ingredient, a depilatory cream made from rat poison—my research made me feel very lucky not to have been experimenting with cosmetics in the 1920s!

Advertising in the 1920s

Advertising for the beauty industry in the 1920s was a revelation. It was an industry in its infancy and the powers that be had decided that the best way to encourage women to buy cosmetic products was to shame them. Odorono, a popular deodorant at the time and a brand that invested in advertising, used such headlines as: ‘He Said Good Night But He Meant Goodbye” and “Only 35c Could Have Saved the Dress She Liked and the Man Who Liked Her”.

Beauty product advertising made it seem that women should buy the products to escape social disgrace, to shore up the attentions of the man they fancied, and to please everyone else. Of course, this irked me too. There was very little fun to be found in any cosmetics advertising and certainly no intimation that a woman might actually buy and wear the products for herself, to make herself feel good. I had to make sure Leo tackled this in Her Mother’s Secret.

Mixing It Up in the Kitchen

Most women began by making cosmetics in their kitchens. Lipsticks in particular were easy to make, and the early mascaras were all made at home with singed eyelashes often the result as they required lampblack as the main ingredient.

I have a set of books on cosmetic chemistry from pre-1945 so I could study the formulations, and I even used those formulations to make up a batch of my own lipcolour. All you really need is a wax, an oil and a pigment or colour so it’s not especially difficult and it gave me an insight into how Leo would have begun, mixing up black market cosmetics for the nurses in the army camp from the back room of her father’s chemist shop.


Department Store Windows

Leo also gets a job as an assistant window dresser at Lord & Taylor, a high-end department store—it’s where she learns about marketing and selling—and I had the most fun reading about the early innovations in window dressing. It was another male-dominated industry—only Display Men were officially allowed to dress windows—but as men had no clue when it came to dressing mannequins in windows or about aesthetics of design, women formed consultancies to help the stores bend the rules and create windows that customers might actually admire.

Location, Location

Those of you who’ve read A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald will know that I like to make the setting feel as real as possible on the page and it was no exception in Her Mother’s Secret. I’ve mentioned before that on a research trip to New York, I had the misfortune to arrive at the same time as Hurricane Sandy. I was staying on the Lower East Side, off the Bowery, which is a great location today, but in blackout conditions it was a very scary place reminiscent of the way it might have been back in the 1920s.

When Leo arrives in New York, she finds a room in a boardinghouse off the Bowery, near Chinatown. I channelled my own experience of being stranded in a blacked out part of the city, which was so dark even taxi drivers wouldn’t take you down there, to imagine what it might have been like for Leo to live there. Chinatown is also such an amazing and vibrant location, that I had to include it, and Jia’s Chinese Medicine shop is based on a store I visited in New York.

Of course there’s a speakeasy, Texas Guinan’s 300 Club, which was an actual and very colourful place, and I had great fun trawling through archives to find pictures and descriptions to help bring it to life, as it’s the backdrop for several dramatic scenes in the book.

I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek into Her Mother’s Secret, and the insight into how I go about researching historical fiction. If it’s whet your appetite, you can now preorder Her Mother’s Secret using the links below:

You can pre-order the paperback at Booktopia here.

You can pre-order the ebook at iBooks here.

You can pre-order the ebook at Amazon here.

You can pre-order the ebook at Kobo here.

You can preorder the audiobook at Audible here.

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5 Responses to “Bringing Her Mother’s Secret to Life: Researching Historical Fiction”

  1. Rachael Keene

    Love, love, love the research process of historical fiction. Almost too much. But you sound like you had so much fun, and it all sounds utterly fascinating! It’s captivating knowing how the makeup my heroine wears at the same time period was made. She works at Harrods, would her cosmetics have been similar? (She actually works in the Pet Kingdom, so they would have looked down on her in the cosmetics department!)

    • Natasha Lester

      Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein both exported their cosmetics in the 1920s so they would have had those in England. England was a little more behind in cosmetics than the US and more women tended to make it at home.

  2. Dervla McTiernan

    It all sounds like so much fun! So cool that you had a go making a lipstick yourself, what wonderful research for Leo’s experiences! Can’t wait to read this book Natasha.


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