Why write when you can travel

We’re planning another research trip. It would probably be more productive to stay home and write more of the book, but we have to be in Southern California anyway for a cousin’s 50th wedding anniversary. So we’re taking a few more days to to search out more windows on the history of the region.

The Autry Museum of the American West. The first hugely famous singing cowboy in the pictures was Gene Autry, who starred in films and on TV from the ‘30s to the early ‘50s. His pictures ignited many a kid’s cowboy/cowgirl fantasies and had little to do with real ranch life or real history. And yet, the museum he founded in 1988 now is a multifaceted, inclusive showcase for the authentic art, history and cultures of the West.

The Japanese American National Museum. I think I owe it to my characters Kit Noguchi, and her father Mr. Noguchi, to understand as much as I can about the Japanese American experience, especially in Southern California. I expect a one-day visit here will only make me realize how much more there is to learn.

The Bradbury Building. You’ve seen it in tons of movies set in Los Angeles, most famously in the first Blade Runner. It’s ornate, mysterious, mazelike – just made for noirish chase scenes. It’s just an office building, not a museum, and we understand if you don’t make too big a deal of playing tourist, you can walk in and look around.

Other places are on the list, too. We’re looking forward to some unstructured time as well, to go wherever our fancy and our rental car will take us.

It’s funny: so much of what we think we know about history, we’ve learned from the movies, for better or worse. But when you start reading and visiting and trying to learn more, you often find stories much more interesting and complicated than you expected. Certainly more nuanced than what can be crammed into a couple of hours of screen time.

So there’s that. And of course there’s also, always, the food. I spent about 16 years writing newspaper restaurant reviews in the San Francisco Bay Area. The experience gave me an appreciation for high-end meals and ever-so-artistic presentations, but you know what? My favorite restaurants are the kind where they serve honest, simple, easy-to-understand food, like the French dip at Philippe’s, pictured here.

A brace of French dips ready for the customers at Philippe’s. A dill pickle, a lovely pink pickled egg, macaroni and potato salads round out the lunch. Tapioca for dessert, anyone?

Even though we had dinner at Musso & Frank (to get a sense of history) and Pump (because it was within walking distance of our hotel), the French dip at Philippe’s was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.*

But wait – two places claim to have invented the French dip. (Though you have to ask, how hard could that have been? It’s sliced roasted meat, inside a French roll, and you dip it in the roasting juices. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.)

Now we must, absolutely must, try the other place where this iconic sandwich might have first been served: Cole’s, which is more of a saloon, from what I can tell. Works for me. I want to go for the dip but also to admire the neon sign.

The trip is some weeks away, and I hope to spend at least some of that time finding out and writing down what Frankie and her friends have been up to, so I can eventually share it with you.


*Quick take on atmosphere. We actually enjoyed the vibe more at and around Philippe’s — the downscale, working-class neighborhood felt authentic and was far less grating on the nerves than the noise and partying on Hollywood Boulevard outside Musso’s door. As far as Pump goes — I loved the garden-room decor but the place was so loud we asked to be moved to a quieter table. We were moved, graciously. But it was still loud at the new table. I had steak with bearnaise at Musso and some kind of fish at Pump — neither were as memorable at the sandwich at Philippe’s.

Angela Lansbury: An Appreciation

OK, to be totally honest, I didn’t know I appreciated Angela Lansbury until she died yesterday, at the age of 96.

Like so many of her generation, my parents’ generation, she was just always … there. There would be plenty of time to catch her. She would always be in another TV show or movie. Just like our parents would be home when we decided to visit. They were always there. Until they weren’t. 

Sometimes you miss them more, remembering them years after they pass, than you did right at the beginning. Maybe immediately afterward, the loss is too new to process, or they were in pain or kidnapped by dementia and it was a relief, or maybe the relationship was so complicated you don’t know how to feel for a long time.

That’s with close-by loved ones, anyway. With entertainers, if we liked them, there may be nothing but great memories. We’re sad to lose them, but really, when they’re approaching 100 … maybe it’s more the passing of the era they represented that we feel sad about. 

And she was around longer than many others, in a career that lasted seven decades. She is not one of those I’ve researched because she was actually too young to be part of the world in the stories (I swear there will be a second one, at least) I want to tell. Born in 1925, she was only about 10 at the time of Stardusted.

When I think of Lansbury I first think of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast – no one sang “Tale as Old As Time” better. I get teary every time I hear her slightly cracked, world-weary but beautiful voice singing it.

In NPR’s story , she hints why: “ ‘I’m not really a singer,’ she admitted. ‘I have a serviceable voice, but how I use it — it’s the emotion under the note that sells the song.’

And boy, could she sell it. I never saw her in Mame, but I can only imagine she sold all those songs, too. 

I hadn’t remembered she was in Gaslight, as a maid, until I saw it recently. (Pretty heady stuff, being directed by George Cukor in your very first role! She earned an Oscar nomination for it, too.) And I can still hear her saying, “Chadwick, give mama some sugar” as Elvis Presley’s Southern belle mom in Blue Hawaii.

Like a relative you like when you see them once in a while at a family gathering but don’t really think of the rest of the time, she always added value to the occasion. Always welcome, always charming–she was even evilly charming as the mother in The Manchurian Candidate.

But one role I never saw her in, not once, was that of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. Which is funny, I guess. If you’re trying to write mysteries, you might think you would want to watch shows about people who write them–even if they are far more prolific and successful than you are–for inspiration. 

But I have not seen even one episode of Murder, She Wrote. When I’m trying to write my own stuff–with life getting in the way in a new way every single damn day–the last thing I want is to watch someone gaily, effortlessly doing the thing that I can’t seem to get done. 

Nor do I want to unconsciously pick up and copy a scene, a plot twist, or dialogue from a show without realizing it. 

But now that I think about other times I’ve been happy to see Lansbury, maybe–after I’ve gotten a first draft done and have put it away for the recommended few weeks before starting to edit–I’ll finally pay her a visit in Cabot Cove.

A woman’s place … is behind the camera

In the days of the silents, filmmaking was still, as this NPR piece notes, a cottage industry, and the number of women who were important writers, directors, editors and producers was much larger than most of today’s moviegoers realize. Once movies became a big, lucrative industry, women were pushed out of most roles other than that of actress. It would be decades before women once more had the chance to tell the stories they want to tell in those prominent behind-the-camera positions.

Most of the films themselves are long gone, the film stock itself deteriorated or the reels lost to fire or other events, but thanks to collector Dwight Cleveland, we can get a glimpse of them in the lobby cards and scene cards–“static trailers,” as the exhibit curator calls them–on display through Oct. 9 at Poster House in New York. Cleveland noticed and then started concentrating on, the contributions of women to early cinema, and this exhibit gives a glimpse into a vanished world. If you happen to be in or live in the area, Experimental Marriage: Women in Early Hollywood looks like it would be well worth any movie-lover’s time.

The rest of us can read or give a listen to the story, first broadcast today (Aug. 29) on NPR.

Hey there, folks visiting for the first time!

If you’ve visited this page recently, you might have taken a look at the date of the most recent posts (before this) and thought, hm, okay, dead website. 

DEb Warner Bros
Me, not writing

And while it’s true that I don’t post terribly often, the reports of the site’s death (if anyone thought it worth reporting), would be greatly exaggerated.

There are reasons. Maybe you’ll find them boring, maybe not, but there are reasons.

Reason 1: Every time I’ve thought I should write a post for the page, the little editor inside me looks over her reading glasses at me and says, “Dear, if you’re going to write, shouldn’t it be writing the next book?” And since I always listen to editors–even imaginary, inside-my-head editors–I took that to heart. Trouble is, the writing has been … um … slow. 

Reason 2: Lockdown. We had–have–a pandemic going on. You’d think the 2020 lockdown would give one tons of time to write. And it did. But I didn’t. Much. Otherwise I’d be telling you all about the next book, obviously. And now I guess the coronavirus and its variants are endemic, but still we’re all going out again and feel like there’s a lot of catching up to do. And that brings us to …

Reason 3: Life. Yeah, all that catching up to do. Anyone who needs to get work done that’s solitary–music, art, writing–has discovered the socializing and creating don’t mix so well.

So I’ve been catching up with friends, having lunches, even taking on a temporary, part-time, remote (gluten-free, low-fat, nondairy) job, mostly because an old colleague asked me to.

And you know what nearly all those friends are asking? “When’s the next book coming out?”

My answer in my head is something like, “You tell me and we’ll both know.” Which would be pretty smartass of me.

All I can tell you is, it’s coming along. It has Frankie, of course, and Max, Clay and Sam, Mr. and Mrs. Monty, Mr. Noguchi and Kit Noguchi, Mr. Wiseman, and a few new characters. And, of course, Frankie’s self-satisfied Persian cat, Major Bowes, and her gallant Thoroughbred mare, Rocket.  And I’m pretty sure this one will be called Starcrossed. 

I’ll say it’s coming out by the end of the year. But don’t hold me to that.

Meanwhile, my loyal sidekick and husband, Ralph, and I did a quick research trip to visit some of Frankie’s haunts in Hollywood. Here are some pictures!

My home, way up in these hills, just off Beachwood Drive, felt worlds away from the strange community in which I worked …”

The Negroni and me. And Frankie.

“You don’t really want me to leave, do you?”
“I’m pretty sure I do,” I said. “I’d like to be alone.”
“After what happened?” he said. “I thought we could talk. You know, if you needed to.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve had a traumatic experience. People need to talk after traumatic experiences,” he said
I didn’t think I needed to talk. But maybe I needed a distraction. I felt my resolve giving way.
He moved toward the cocktail bar and picked up a bottle of Campari. “Negroni?”
“Thanks,” I said, resistance gone. “Well played, sir.”
He did make an excellent Negroni. And he had made it clear, he wasn’t going anywhere.

Stardusted, Chapter Four

Back in the days when we could still get together with friends for drinks at a restaurant or bar (I am writing this while in quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, and no one with common sense has gone anyplace crowded for months), I used to find myself dithering when the server asked  what I would like. I’ll admit to letting it figure into my decision what the drink would say about me–how’s that for shallow? Why not just order something I liked?

This Negroni seems to have lost its orange twist–but isn’t the light pretty?

Trouble was, I didn’t really know what I liked in the way of cocktails. I didn’t come from a family that drank them–well, except for Aunt Adeline and Uncle Whitey, whose parties featured a constantly running blender turning out pale green Grasshoppers … unless it was Pink Squirrels. Not exactly classics; at least not since the ‘60s.

My mom didn’t drink and my dad liked beer until he discovered the Tom Collins –which, from the recipe I just now looked up, seems to be basically gin-spiked lemonade.

Anyway, these memories did nothing to help when I was standing or sitting there and my friends were ordering glasses of white wine or gins-and-tonics or whatever. What did I want? What did I like?

I needed, I figured, a signature cocktail. Like when you think of the gals on Sex and the City, you think Cosmopolitans (pardon me, but, ugh). Like when you think of James Bond you think of martinis, shaken not stirred (now we’re talking). Like when you think of Hunter S. Thompson you think of rivers of Wild Turkey (that might be going a bit far).

Maybe 11 or 12 years ago, I decided to go about this logically. I remembered a friend who liked to drink Campari and sodas, and I remembered I also liked the rather bitter liqueur when he’d let me taste it. So I started looking up “cocktails with Campari.” And that’s how the Negroni entered my life.

Bitter and sweet, cold and bracing, it’s one of those cocktails that forces you to take it slowly, and savor it. And it’s so strong that unless you’re in total self-destruct mode, you know you can only have one of them, especially if there’ll be wine with dinner.

We bought Campari, we bought gin, we bought sweet vermouth. And my husband, ace amateur mixologist, whipped up a Negroni for me. Love at first sip. I had found my signature drink.

Usually I’m behind the curve on trends but it turned out I was just slightly ahead of the Negroni curve. I would often ask for a Negroni at a restaurant only to find out they had no Campari. 

That’s hardly a problem anymore. (The Daily Beast has an excellent story about the rise of the Negroni–and gets extra points for somehow working Patrick Stewart into the piece.)

And when I decided my heroine Frankie Franklin needed a signature drink, too, it seemed only fitting we should share this one. Since it was invented before 1920, it was certainly something a sophisticated young star would know about–especially one whose cowboy father knew its inventor, the Florentine Count Camillo Negroni, who spent some time cowboying himself. (You can see why research is so captivating.)

And of course Max, Frankie’s significant other, also makes a mean Negroni. Like this:


1-¼ ounces Campari

1-¼ ounces sweet vermouth

1-¼ ounces gin

Combine the Campari, vermouth and gin in a an old-fashioned or rocks glass, with ice. At this point you can either serve it right in that glass or strain it into another glass, stemmed or not, preferably chilled. Garnish with an orange twist. My husband, being an artist, sometimes peels a lemon, instead, in one continuous strip and fashions it into a rose-shaped garnish. (Yep, he’s a keeper.)

Give us a listen!

I’m very excited to announce that Stardusted is now available on Amazon as an audiobook. For a time due to contract obligations it will only be on Amazon. We’ll see how things go.

I used Amazon Creative Exchange to find the amazing narrator-producer I worked with. 

Her name is Mary Castillo, and she not only does stellar narration, she also writes books herself, some of which are captivating paranormal mysteries featuring a San Diego detective named Dori Orihuela, a great heroine who comes complete with a very cool, sassy grandmother. Someday I’ll have to ask her for her time-management tips because I honestly don’t know how she does it. 

Although I’ve studied voiceover for narration and commercial work and considered — for a nanosecond — attempting to record Stardusted myself, I realized I didn’t have the technical chops to do it right, right off the bat, or to direct myself in a project of this length. Too much pressure! 

Mary’s audition snippet was the third one I heard and it was love at first listen. Frankie’s voice was right there. She also captures the other characters, including the men, better than I could even have hoped for. Characterizations: check. Sound quality: Check. Professional and a joy to work with: check. Mary’s own love of classic movies and Old Hollywood, I think, also helped her understand immediately what I wanted. 

She’s obviously destined for ever-increasing success, and I just hope when the next book is finished, Mary will have time in her schedule to voice Frankie again!

Silents, please

On New Year’s Eve, I had a brief discussion with a friend about silent movies and how he doesn’t enjoy them so much — not because you have to read on title cards whatever dialogue the actors are saying, but because the acting was so “stagey.”

Speaking of where to discover great silent films, if you live in the Bay Area you need to visit this place, where they show silents weekly, with live musical accompaniment.

That’s what I thought, too, for years. But recently I’ve seen a few silents that struck me for the subtle expressiveness many performers were able to get across on camera, performances in which actors knew they were not projecting to a theater balcony. If all you know of silents are slapstick chases and stunts, and you love films, there are some overlooked gems out there if you know where to look.

One of these for me was a 1929 feature, actually known as a transitional sound film, called Redskin. It was shot partially in Technicolor, and featured a synchronized score and sound effects.

By the title and the era it comes from, you might be expecting this to be a film full of racial stereotypes and other insensitivity. But you would be surprised. Redskin actually is a sympathetic and relatively nuanced tale of a young Navajo boy, a fast runner named Wingfoot, taken from his family and sent to an Indian boarding school. The cruelty and tragedy of this era comes through in a few deft scenes. Despite adversity, though, Wingfoot excels, and goes to college, where he encounters more racism, but excels again, only to find upon his return that he is no longer fits in with his traditional family.

Director Victor Schertzinger avoids the most glaring stereotypes in this picture. It would have been great if Native actors had been found for the lead roles, but that’s probably asking too much, considering the times. With Richard Dix in the role of Wingfoot, the film invites you to see these characters as people, remarkably complex, not cardboard heroes and villains. The scenes in the Navajo and Pueblo villages are particularly affecting, shot on location partially in Canyon de Chelly and Acoma Pueblo.

We discovered this picture on a DVD, Treasures II: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934, a feature-length film amid a collection of obscure short films from a variety of sources including businesses and advocacy groups, produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation. It’s worth seeking out. (We found it on Netflix.)

A note on the director: 

Sometimes it seems as though people long ago used to be able to stuff many more accomplishments into a life — even a short one — than we do now, despite all our technological toys. 

Pennsylvania-born Victor Schertzinger was much more than the director of this one remarkable film. He directed 89 films, in fact, including two of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies. But he was also a concert violinist and symphony conductor, and a pioneering film composer who won best musical score and sound recording Oscars in 1934 for One Night of Love. 

And if that’s not enough, he also composed two standards that you’ll hear today on jazz stations and in cabaret shows, I Remember You and Tangerine.

Schertzinger died in 1941, at the age of 53.

Kate’s bold brownies

The approach of Valentine’s Day has me thinking of Golden Age couples with great screen chemistry: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson and Doris Day … there are lists and lists, which you you can find everywhere online. Most of these lists,if they’re really complete,  include the great Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who made nine pictures together, from Woman of the Year (1942) to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

The gruff, earthy Tracy and the refined, nervy Hepburn were great together onscreen and were also rumored to have carried on a long-term offscreen affair though Tracy was married. Like many such stories in Hollywood, there are conflicting stories about whether there really was an affair at all or whether the rumors were just a convenient distraction from their real personal lives. 

Personal lives are usually so messy and hard to pin down and that’s one reason that I usually find stories about actors’ and directors’ work much more interesting than gossip about their private lives. Usually the work is more interesting than their private lives (unless they have adventures like Frankie Franklin’s). To my mind, what’s up there on the screen is all they owe us.

But Hepburn left us something else besides the wonderful characters she embodied in the pictures (my favorite of which is Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter). She left us this wonderful brownie recipe, bold in its simplicity. I copied it years and years (and years) ago from, I think, Good Housekeeping magazine. I’ve found other versions online but not written in quite the same way, and often using ½ cup unsweetened cocoa instead of baking chocolate. Memory fails, and the original is lost, but something about this version — which accompanied a story about her — makes me think it was in her own words. 

These are my favorite quick thing to make for when I want that bit of chocolate after dinner that’s more than just a square from a Trader Joe’s darkest bar. (You know the feeling?) They’re great by themselves, or with a scoop of vanilla (or dulce de leche) ice cream.


Makes one 8- or 9-inch square pan

Melt 2 squares unsweetened chocolate and 1 stick butter in heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in 1 cup sugar. Add 2 eggs and ½ teaspoon vanilla. Beat like mad. Stir in ¼ cup flour, ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 cup chopped walnuts. Mix. Pour into buttered 8-by-8-inch pan. Bake in a 325-degree oven for 40 minutes. Let cool, cut into 1½-inch squares.

Recipe notes: 

Instructions can sometimes be vague, especially in older recipes. Here we’re talking about 1-ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate — 2 ounces total for the recipe. 

Since I have a microwave, I never use a saucepan for this one. Stick the chocolate in a Pyrex measuring bowl, put the butter on top and melt for about 2 minutes on High. The butter keeps the chocolate from seizing up, so don’t worry about that. Then mix the rest of the recipe right in the bowl.

The pan size isn’t critical either. My best small baking pan right now is 9×9 inches and they come out fine, just a little thinner — and if you use a pan that size, start checking for doneness at 30 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the middle should come out clean.

This recipe takes well to all kinds of variations. You can try it with cocoa powder. You can add a couple of tablespoons cocoa powder. Use half white and half brown sugar. Substitute pecans or almonds or hazelnuts for the walnuts. Add chocolate chips. Add white chocolate chips. 

“Stardusted” is now available in paperback!

It really is a different thing to hold your own book in your hands, turn the pages and read your words as part of this new thing, a physical object, rather than just seeing them on a screen. Especially when you’re an indie author and have control — for better or worse! — of every step from the initial idea to the writing, editing, getting others to read/edit/comment, right through to designing the cover.

Stardusted proof copy.
Hot off the presses: the proof copy!

I was pretty excited when the proof copy came in the mail!

It’s been great to hear that readers like Stardusted, and I’m excited that now those who don’t like to read on their phones or tablets can find it in paperback form at Amazon. (And for those who don’t do Amazon, we beg your patience as we figure out the ins and outs of publishing independently in other ways! Those other ways are in the works … stay tuned …)

The joys of research

Trying to get historical fiction right is a challenge, but also a joy. One of the reasons I was intrigued by the Golden Age of Hollywood as a setting for a story was that I knew it would be fun to research. I’ve always been as fascinated by the behind-the-scenes stories in the entertainment world as by what ends up onscreen. And the most fascinating of these stories to me are not the ones about who fell in love with whom or who was not the wholesome innocent people saw on the screen. No, I’ve always found the making of movies an absorbing world to peer into.

How did the director find that location? Why did that costume designer always put that actress in big, fluffy sleeves? What horse is that that keeps showing up in different movies with different riders? In some cases, I’d be satisfied just by having that knowledge to add to what I already knew. But there’s something about using that research to inform a story about fictional characters that makes the research even more fun.

My favorite kinds of books for research are memoirs, biographies, and books with lots of photos — not so much the glamorous movie-star portraits (though I love those), but the ones that show the guys behind the camera, doing their best to catch the moments being created in front of the camera. I love “hearing” the actual voice of a performer or director, finding out how they were feeling about that role or this scene, that co-star or this location.

Some sources I’ve loved while writing Stardusted include:

Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, edited by George Stevens, Jr. Absorbing interviews from the American Film Institute featuring directing icons such as Howard Hawks, George Cukor, Frank Capra and others.

The Moon’s a Balloon, by David Niven. Goodreads notes that this is one of the bestselling memoirs of all time, and it’s well deserved. Niven was there, beginning his long career in the 1930s, and he was every bit as astute an observer and sensitive writer as he was a suave, polished English gentleman, the kind of role he often played in pictures. He went everywhere and knew everyone, went away to help defend Great Britain in World War II, came back a hero, and went back to work.

Hollywood Hoofbeats: Trails Blazed Across the Silver Screen, by Petrine Day Mitchum, Audrey Pavia. You cannot escape the fact, if you read Stardusted, that the author is a dyed-in-the-wool, googly-eyed, unapologetic horse nut. I already knew, from bits and pieces I’d read in various magazines, something about a number of movie and TV horses, but to find them all in one book — from Trigger to Hidalgo — was horse heaven for me.

I love to work the research I’ve done into a story, but I also love to share things that I find amazing, surprising or just weird, and I’ll do more of that here.

September 25, 2019