“How come you know all that?” people sometimes ask, after reading my history-based books. I’m not sure. I mean, at school I didn’t find history that interesting: reciting dates of dead kings and assorted battles. Instead, I’d gazed out of the window as the rain drizzled down, recalling some old Hollywood movie I’d seen on television – trying to figure out how I could possibly ever live in Tinsel Town.
So I certainly didn’t catch the history bug in school. Although, once I left school and started travelling, I became fascinated by the history of the old buildings in London that Charles Dickens wrote about, or Paris and Victor Hugo’s world. I’d caught the bug.
And when, after more travelling, I was finally living in Hollywood, California, I became captivated by the history of this movie town, where I found myself working at Warner Brothers, Paramount Studios, and Universal Studios. I drive by Charlie Chaplin’s old studio often and think about his early days there.
The Magic of Hollywood had been in my blood all my life. I recall my mum’s stories of when she was little and she would pore over the Hollywood movie magazines. She remembered the adverts for ‘eye black’ and the little round tubs of Bourjois rouge, and other cosmetics that movie stars Clara Bow or Jean Harlow bought – allegedly. I used a lot of this information in my Lottie Topaz novels about Hollywood in the 1920s.
Funnily enough, only last year, I met Jean Harlow’s hairdresser. At a Jean Harlow Celebration at the Woman’s Club of Hollywood, I had invited Alfred Pagano to speak to the enthralled audience. Alfred was 100 years old – still charming and dapper. He had turned the young Jean Harlow’s hair that legendary peroxide blond, helping to create the first Blond Bombshell. He explained that he had experimented and used household bleach mixed with Lux soap flakes to create that color! So I filed that tidbit, and many other things he shared with me, away for my writing research.
I realized that this is how I know all this ‘stuff.’ Not from sitting in a classroom, but by being ‘out-and-about’ and talking with people. Listening to older people’s stories is a great source of inspiration for me. We get clues and ideas from asking family members. The older generations are a font of information and memories for us to mine. Family storytelling is becoming a lost art that we really must encourage and revive.
Mind you, I have spent hours in various libraries, looking at archive records and especially photos. They tell us so much. A picture really is worth a thousand words when you study the background, what people are wearing, how they were living.
I do, of course, “Google” people, places and things. It’s so easy to do. Although I learned that Google tracks and follows every key stroke you make. Then I get those annoying adverts all over the place from prior searches of mine. I feel like I’m being followed. I am. Bing.com is a good alternative – and a newer search engine called DuckDuckGo.com that was started by Gabriel Weinberg in 2008. These two search engines say they value your privacy and don’t sell you information, so your search gets you the information you’re looking for, not what the top payers want you to see.
Old magazines and newspapers are a great source of ideas and research. I look for old magazines in Thrift Shops. It’s amazing what people get rid of. Skimming through articles in 1940s magazines can result in some nugget of information that triggers my imagination for a new story. Then I follow the clues; names of old organizations that have archive libraries, old department stores that have long been razed and replaced by anonymous concrete towers. Going back into their history, one finds odd little stories of people that lived or worked there. Bits of information that most would consider irrelevant, but that spark a story idea.
There are so many specialist magazines that have an eclectic assortment of articles or adverts. I never know where I will find something curious or interesting. Family Tree Magazine is a great source of genealogy, with articles on so many professions of yesterday, town histories, and letters from readers trying to trace their great-great grandparents and long-lost relatives.
I sometimes envy writer friends working on contemporary stories. They don’t have to research, unless there is some special skill involved. It’s much easier to write things set in present day, because we write about our every day life without even thinking about it.
But the journeys I am taken on, once I start researching something, are true adventures. It’s easy to get side-tracked by a notice in the paper or an old advert. Obituaries are wonderful sources for inspiration, when you read of a life encapsulated. I could spend my entire day doing research, without ever writing a word. It takes discipline not to get led astray and back on that yak-shaving train…….