History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 January 2009

"Milk"--and bringing an historical world to life

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I had a fabulous time celebrating with friends and family and indulging in a couple of my favorite holiday (and non-holiday) activities--shopping (the sales were amazing even if I was on more of a budget than usual) and going to the movies. I saw two wonderful movies, Doubt (as thought-provoking on film as when I saw it in the theater) and Milk. Milk was shattering, left me in tears, and to me felt much more immediate than a lot of bio-pics do. Of course it didn't hurt that I remember a lot of the events vividly. The Prop 6 campaign, and my mom saying "not that I'm worried about who teaches my daughter, but if I was worried I'd be a lot more worried about heterosexual men." One of my classmates (who must have heard it on the radio, because we didn't have tv at school and it was way before radio) bursting into my 7th grade class with the news that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated. Going home and asking my parents why it had happened and "what happens now?"

But it was one particular cinematic view in Milk that really took me back in time. In the mid-to-late 70s, my mom and I often spent weekend afternoons at the Castro Theater, seeing old movies (no VCRs yet). We usually parked on the other side of Market Street and walked down the hill to the theater. There's one shot in Milk, down that hill, showing the theater marquee, that took my breath away because it looked so like what I remembered.

And that, I realized, is part of what we try to do as historical novelists--recreate the past so vividly that the reader feels she or he has stepped back into an historical era. It isn't easy. Usually we're writing about eras far beyond our memory and often in far away places. Even if we're able to visit the setting of our books, inevitably the scene has changed. The production team for Milk worked hard to recreate the San Francisco of the 70s. Two of my friends were extras in the movie. They were briefed on how to dress to fit the era and watched the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk before they shot the scenes they were in (they also talked to people who had known Harvey Milk who said Sean Penn was so like him it was uncanny). I was at a party in the Castro neighborhood the day before I saw the movie, so the difference between the way the neighborhood looked in the movie and the way it looks today was vivid. The marquee of the Castro Theater looks different, signs were changed, old storefronts and restaurants recreated.

As a novelist, I do a similar sort of "set dressing" in my head. I've spent quite a bit of time sitting in Berkeley Square, looking at the house that's my mental image for Charles and Mélanie's house and the Georgian houses next to it (pictured above), imagining the square lined with similar houses, the plane trees younger, the red telephone booth gone, phaetons and barouches and curricles in place of cars, Regency-dressed children their nurses playing in the park. I walk down London Street mentally editing out the Victoriana (and anything later), trying to blend the sights before me with period engravings of how the street in question looked in the era of my books. I go into country houses that have been redone through the centuries and try to imagine them before post-Regency embellishments.

Have you visited the locations in your books (or looked at contemporary photographs) and tried to mentally "set dress" them to the era you're writing about? Have you seen Milk? If you lived through the era, did it feel authentic? If don't remember the time and events, did you find the movie compelling? Other holiday movies you found memorable?

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Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Terrific post, Tracy! I have yet to see "Milk" -- which is high on my list, but the $12 ticket price for a movie in NY scares me and I didn't get a free DVD this year from SAG, hoping it will encourage me to vote for Penn's performance in the SAG awards. I haven't seen "Doubt" yet either -- but will have the same eagle eye on the film version (I saw the play and thought it was overrated, frankly) as you had on "Milk" because I grew up in the Bronx and lived right across the street from a parochial school and rectory and on Saturday nights we used to watch a young handsome priest leave the rectory in a Hawaiian shirt, get into a powder blue car driven by a pretty lady and sit very close to her. I doubt she was his sister in any sense of the word. I'll have a Henry Higgins ear on the authenticity of their Bronx accents, too, because the Broadway cast utterly blew it, even though they performed the roles very well otherwise. But I'm so picky about actors getting the accents right that it takes me right out of the piece when they don't.

As far as using the real places in my writing, I always take photos and notes, even when I just think I might use a location one day. In my historical novels I've used Bath, London, and Venice; parts of Miami and Colorado figure very specifically in a couple of my contemporary novels, and my native NYC is always a character
is them.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

You'll have to let me know what you think of "Doubt," Amanda! It's always particularly fascinating to see a setting one knows well brought to life (and frustrating when they get it wrong!).

I have a box of pictures of settings in my books I keep on my desk. And notebooks full of notes I still go back to frequently. I've pulled out descriptions I jotted down years ago and used them in a current book.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I try to mentally dress my "set" in every scene I write. Someday, I hope to take an English Castle tour so I can walk the grounds, the bailies, and the ruins of the keeps and fortress walls I write about.

Most of the forests are gone. ;-(

But I did actually walk around a restored 18th century pirate ship once. Not so romantic a place. Very small!

10:17 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The forests being gone is one of the particular challenges in set-dressing--both in the writer's imagintaion and for actual films. Scotland looks very different with so many hills bare of trees (so that even though "Rob Roy" was filmed on location, Rob Roy's actual countryside would have looked quite different).

Where did you you go on the 18th century pirate ship? That sounds fascinating!

10:40 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...


Just noticed a typo in my post (which I actually did proof twice--shows the need for copy editors!).

In this sentence:

"who must have heard it on the radio, because we didn't have tv at school and it was way before radio)"

it was supposed to read "way before the internet" (I'm not quite that old :-).

10:42 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Tracy. Great post! Since my current WIP is set at a women's college in 1895, I have a ton of pictures taken from books on Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley and Smith from that era, as well books on fashion, and mucho books on 1890's New York. I actually have a facsimile of an 1890's tour guide of New York that I frequently dip into. I've also been down to Philadelphia to walk the streets of the neighborhood my character would have lived in (during the day of course), taking photos to look at later.

I haven't seen Doubt or Milk but the AMC movie theaters in New York only charge you $6.00 if you go before 11:00 am.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It must be great to have photographs from the era in which your book is set, Elizabeth! For the Regency, I love engravings and prints of streets of buildings. (On a side note about women's colleges, one of my high school friends went to Vassar. Her freshman dorm room had really wide doorways, apparently because they were built to accommodate hoop skirts).

I love walking streets where my book is set, even if I have to do mental "set dressing"--or perhaps that's part of the fun of it!

12:37 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Thanks for letting me know about the doorways. Considering that Vassar was founded in 1860, that does make sense! I picked the 1890's precisely because of the advent of photography!

1:39 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Very smart to pick the era that's the advent of photography!

I was at a fair with my uncle and aunt in West Marin over the summer and in one of the booths I found a set of placemats with prints of London in the 1830s (a little later than my books but still very helpful). You can find research materials in the most unexpected places!

1:59 PM  

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