Lights, camera … mystery!

Hollywood, 1935. People flock to the movies for escape — and sometimes just for the air-conditioning. The people who make the movies play hard and work hard, and that’s just fine with glamorous, blonde Frankie Franklin, the brightest star at Fortune Motion Pictures. She’s on the set right now, making a picture that that will help her fans forget there’s a Depression going on. But filming stops when a real bullet in a prop gun seriously wounds her young costar, and Frankie is is driven to find out why. Because there’s only one thing everyone knows: She did it.

Interested? Read the first chapter.

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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

Here comes Santa Claus

Sure, it snows in California … in the mountains. But a lot of California is just too warm, too desert-y, or too close to the ocean to experience much snowfall. The mild weather and sunny days in Los Angeles have been terrific for shooting movies since the industry was young. But all that sunshine around the holidays has always had more people than just Irving Berlin dreaming of a White Christmas.

To get folks into the gift-shopping spirit, beginning in 1928, merchants renamed a stretch of Hollywood Boulevard “Santa Clause Lane” and staged a parade on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Except for a few years during World War II, the parade has been an annual Los Angeles tradition. Read more here:

Way before Ralph Lauren polo …

… there was Walt Disney, playing polo. Read more here: