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