We have a magical resource at our fingertips. How many of us make optimal use of it?
It is an essential tool for me, writing fiction set in the sixteenth century and the nineteen-twenties, but I would make equal use of it if I were writing a piece set in the here and now, or on a world in the distant future. In order to build an intriguing world, I need information. Gobs of it.
I need the layout of London in 1583, sure. But, more than that, I want obscure, screwball details. I’m always on the lookout for fun facts. Always!
I am constantly googling biographies, description, any oddball thing that occurs to me. Last week I found an article on the history of mirrors, and the use John Dee made of them in his occult work. When I get to book four of Sly . . . when I get down in the mud, wrestling a story out of Dee . . . I could make it up, sure. And it would be fun. But it will be so much more fun if it’s (sorta) based on historical reality.
What is flon flon? The term was attached to a headpiece designed by Paul Poiret a century ago. I plugged flon flon into Google and got this: “An improvisation in wire, strips of silk, and feathers and is little more than a headband. As with many of the hats and headdresses intended for pairing with evening ensembles, the ‘Flon flon’ is theatrical in spirit.” You know those lists of words everyone overuses? I overuse frou frou. Flon flon is an interesting alternative.
Google has not obliged me in my search for info on Bea Wanger, one of my two main characters in Maisie in Hollywood. This is all I’ve found on her:
American interpretative dancer. Name variations: Beatrice Wanger. Born Beatrice Wanger, c. 1900, in San Francisco, CA; died Mar 15, 1945, in New York, NY.
Stage name: Nadja (c. 1900–1945) Trained at school of Florence Flemming Noyes in New York City; taught classes at schools in NY and London; moved to Paris where she made performance debut at Théatabletre Mogador in Cora Laparcie’s Lysistrata (1924); created and performed recitals (often set to poems by Dante Gabriel Rosetti and G. Constant Lounsberry) at Théâtre Esotérique and other popular venues; returned to US (1937) and taught at studio of Albertina Rasch in NY.
She was the sister of the legendary producer Walter Wanger, that I’ve ascertained. With so little to go on, I felt I had permission to write her as I pleased.
Hedda Hopper, I have reams of material on her. W.C. Fields, ditto. Dalton Trumbo, I’m good with him also. Yes, he’s in Maisie as well. Erich von Stroheim’s methods of eliciting riveting performances from his actors. Wallace Beery . . . he was Gloria Swanson’s first husband. Did you know that? He was already a big star when she was just starting out.
I have a file on the history of shoulder pads. Square-shouldered bodices were designed by Adrian for Joan Crawford, to camouflage her broad shoulders. They became the style, on film and in the culture at large. Maisie, with no shoulders to speak of, longed to be in fashion. I have Travis Banton at Paramount giving her leg-o-mutton sleeves, the illusion of shoulders, which thrill her no end.
I see a file named ‘The Original Red Mirage’. I don’t recall what’s in it but I’m sure it’s something valuable.
I have three files for Victoria Cross. She wrote schlock romance in the nineteen-tens-twenties, really terrific, terrible stuff. I use a line of hers in chapter nine of Maisie: “Cuckoo! screamed the bird in the tree, taking to the purple-bruised sky with a joyful flapping of last-light-licked wings.”
I stole this line (and made changes to gunk it up even more) off guttenberg.org, for my character Bea Wanger, who writes romance also. This bit (and others) were too good not to grab.
The folder I’m looking through at the moment contains my notes for Maisie. I have another folder of notes for Sly, with triple the material. I’ve been doing my research on him for thirty years, first in typewritten pages, now pulled off the web and saved, with a tenth of the effort.
Magical! The web is magical! How did we get along without it?