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Do Your Research to Make Your Story Really Come to Life

A page from my fully illustrated Maisie in Hollywood. Mulot danced briefly with the celebrated Denishawn Dancers. It was Ted Shawn who gave her the name Marcelline Mulot. He refused to have a Maisie Snodgrass in his troupe.

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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:

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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.

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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?

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30 thoughts on “Do Your Research to Make Your Story Really Come to Life

  1. I googled Nadja Wanger and found some things, including this:
    Nadja, Beatrice Wanger | Europeanahttps://www.europeana.eu › item › ProvidedCHO_Jerse…
    Jan 27, 2015 — Nadja, Beatrice Wanger. Seated woman dancer with naked breasts wearing full sheer pleated skirt, which is spread out around her on the floor …

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Oh, good writers of the past got by. Perhaps wrote more from personal experience. I too resort to the wacky weird web, but mostly when I find I’ve stuffed a word that seeped out on my failing mental wordbank into a piece – to see if I’ve committed a faux pas. (snicker) Some beauts! Interesting read. Thanks.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    Thank you, Mimi, for your post. I also thought the picture added another dimension to illustrate your points about research.
    While I think historical fiction provides more opportunity for research, I often use google for research about place or other details that add realism to my stories. I also collect tidbits and ephemera from all manner of places that I file away in my brain for possible use. I think it makes the writer’s life more enjoyable and fun to imagine how to use the research in creative ways.

    Liked by 6 people

      • Um. I’m gonna go out on a limb here as a former computer geek: your research is safer in your noggin. MTBF on disk, even SSD (now so highly touted {mostly for sheer speed, being in fact NOT disk} is woefully low). Takes seventy-odd years for the human USSD to deteriorate, then does so with much fanfare and advance warning.

        To boot, human memory will embellish stored “facts,” fill in gaps, and even institute more research independent of what’s already locked-away. Skewd? Ah. Pah! who cares?

        Then, there’s the trusty old yellow legal pad. Like mine right here. Um, unh, where IS mine? It was right here just a minute ago…

        Liked by 6 people

        • mimispeike says:

          Safe for the remainder of my lifetime. (A generous estimate would be twenty more years.) And I have everything saved onto external drives, as both docs and pdfs.)

          Liked by 3 people

        • victoracquista says:

          I do a fair amount of saving on the computer as well, but organizing that data is challenging and also compartmentalizes it. When it’s in the computer, I tend to forget about it and try to find it when I have need for it. However, when it’s in my brain, it’s always there and operating both during sleep and waking hours. The possibilities to add to the data, make and uncover connections, network with other parts of my brain, etc. are much more likely to happen when I’ve stored this information in my head and not on a hard drive, flash drive, or other type of digital storage. The capacity for information storage in the human brain is quite extraordinary.

          Liked by 7 people

          • Agreed. But are we anachronisms? All my youthful (younger than 40) acquaintances, when learning my bark surpasses my bite for lack of good teeth, suggest that is so. Contrary to what might have been construed from my earlier comment, as an ex-geek, I use my computer, thumb drives, yellow notepads, cellphone, relatively clean dinner napkins, old envelopes, and eleventy-twelve small spiral notebooks to record Pulitzer stuff lest it somehow vaporize. Tomorrow you and I will adapt, abandoning wristwatches, memopads, and such. I see us, nurturing a kernel of literary genius on the cusp of REM sleep, yelling out to our idling AutoTransscriber, “Hey! Put this down: she walked seductively through Mikonosis’ bedroom door, shedding her very little LBD like a snakeskin, her some-polite-euphemism-for tits mesmerizing Miki already delirious from the poisons of her some-word-for-inescapable charms ….” Snicker. I think I just hurt myself.

            Liked by 4 people

          • “The capacity for information storage in the human brain is quite extraordinary.” I completely agree, Victor, but my experience is that the ability to retrieve that information becomes unreliable and seems to diminish over time, as a purely natural process. I can remember that I knew something about a particular person/place/thing/concept without being able to remember what the “something” was. My digital files have saved me more than once — especially because I will file things in however many compartments describe them.

            Liked by 5 people

  4. mimispeike says:

    I make up also – how could I not? But I want my made-up to be rooted in reality.

    I’ve been wondering for some time: could Bea Wanger (born 1900) and Natacha Rambova (born 1897 / birth name: Winifred Shaughnessy), both in arts-inclined families (Rambova was for a period the stepdaughter of designer Elsie de Wolfe), both raised in San Francisco, might they have known each other?

    If a timeline doesn’t rule it out (Rambova traveled with her stepmother in Europe for extended periods), it’s going into my story.

    Not every story needs extensive world-building. But I can’t seem to write anything without asking myself: what was the context?

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Perry Palin says:

    Good post, Mimi. You do a lot of research, and it shows, and it builds the story.

    I just finished reading a John Sandford novel with an afternote where the author apologizes for his glitches that came from late editing and not enough fact checking. You can’t click off the safety of a Glock; a Glock doesn’t have a safety. There are no 40mm handguns, though there are .40 caliber ones. That sort of thing.

    In reading fiction I can suspend my disbelief in fields where I know nothing, such as stock market operations, or sailing. But when a story has facts that I know are wrong, I suspect the author of not doing the research. That hurts the story for me.

    I write simple stories about stuff that I know, and my small circle of readers assume that the fiction is autobiographical. I’m flattered that I was able to make the fiction real for them for at least for a little while. My one beta reader of my unpublished novel asked me if I was part Ojibway, because some of the characters are Ojibway and I made them real for him. I am not Ojibway, but I know some, and maybe someday I will dare to have a few of them read the book and point out the problems.

    Liked by 6 people

  6. Mimi’s research goes way beyond Google, as shown by her notes at the end of Chapter One, “Sly: The Rogue Decamps.”

    Chapter Notes
    1. A Basque proverb, meaning shut up, and stay shut up. (Birds do not pee and poop separately. They plop, as we can readily see on our windshields.)
    2. Bernard Délicieux, aka the Friar of Carcassonne, battled the corruption of the twelfth century church in a region not far from my Haute-Navarre.
    3. I’ve extracted tasty phrases from vintage works for decades. I never jotted attributions; I wrote for my own amusement. Using the heavy crown is one of my snags. This is my all-mischief own-up; I’m not trying to get away with anything.
    4. Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the kingdom of Navarre did exist in this period.
    5. This comment was made about Elizabeth I by ‘a French ambassador’ according to several sources.
    6. Historically correct or not, from here I refer to the conglomerate peninsula as Spain.
    7. Basque was the language of home and hearth and of the judiciary, but Spanish was the parlance of intellectual life, even in isolationist Haute-Navarre – Speaking of Spain by Antonio Feros, Harvard University Press, 2017.
    8. He’d been born and raised in Cumbria, in far-northern England. After years abroad, a good chunk of that time in the service of a foreign government, he remained ferociously loyal to the Virgin Queen.

    Liked by 6 people

    • mimispeike says:

      “3. I’ve extracted tasty phrases from vintage works for decades. I never jotted attributions; I wrote for my own amusement. Using the heavy crown is one of my snags. This is my all-mischief own-up; I’m not trying to get away with anything.”

      I worry about this, GD. I worry about it a lot. Starting my series thirty years ago, I never for a minute thought it could/would be published, so I wrote for my own entertainment. I have only lifted heavily in one area: in the chapter in which Sly holds an imaginary conversation with the artist who is headed to Haute-Navarre to paint his portrait. I’ve rewritten some of that, but there are priceless phrases I can’t bear to part with. And I don’t have a clue where I got hold of them, so I can’t add an attribution.

      In his diatribe on Natural Philosophy (uh-oh, is it in book one? Maybe, maybe not), I’ve stolen the first two lines verbatim from Margaret Cavendish, aka “the first female scientist”, but all that follows, forty-fifty lines of verse, are mine.

      The bits I’ve stolen, I’ve used so creatively that I’ve figured it might pass. I have, in effect, made them my own.

      Is this argument worth a damn?

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sounds good to me. Even if someone does catch on, it’s still tradition.
        When Milton Berle and Henny Youngman were listening to Joey Bishop tell a particularly funny gag, Berle whispered, “Gee, I wish I said that.”
        “Don’t worry, Milton,” said Henny, “‘you will.’”

        Liked by 1 person

      • In a word: no. It’s not okay.

        See: “Perhaps looking at the meaning behind T. S. Eliot’s quote (“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”) can help clear up this situation. I interpret ‘steal’ to mean, in this context, the act of taking from other texts themes, ideas, rhythms, structures, but not the sentences themselves. It’s no secret that books are made from other books, but hopefully we’re not to the point where books are simply compilations of other books. Cutting and pasting shouldn’t be considered writing. And though “mixing” has a nice ring to it—what about blending? Or melding?—it doesn’t hide the dirty reality that someone is getting robbed.”

        https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/t-s-eliot-was-wrong
        ……………………………

        Plagiarism is plagiarism, Mimi. The fact that you “cannot bear” to give up certain sentences (phrases are a trickier matter) holds no weight if you are revealed, post-publication, to be a plagiarist. If you have any doubt as to whether the words are truly your own I would run the text through a plagiarism checker—as any reputable publisher will do—before publishing your book.

        Phrases are a trickier matter. Robert E. Howard was fond of using the phrase “the sere and yellow leaf”, which is itself a slight rephrasing of Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth: “the sere, the yellow leaf”. (Note: the Bard himself was a notorious plagiarizer.)

        Using a famous line from literature as a knowing wink to the reader is another matter (as is unconscious plagiarism—that’s the one that haunts me). Dean Koontz once opened a chapter (I forget the novel) with the sentence “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”, which is obviously a shout-out to W. B. Yeats. I once began a short story with the playful, repurposed, intentionally awful sentence “It was a dark and storming night” (Bulwer-Lyton: “It was a dark and stormy night.” FYI: Snoopy stole this sentence as well for numerous literary constructions he paw-hammered out on a manual typewriter atop his doghouse.)

        Plagiarism will destroy a writer’s reputation if the crime is oft repeated and/or significant enough: I mean wholesale lifting of sentences and entire paragraphs from another’s work. Look at what happened to Stephen Ambrose’s reputation after it was revealed that entire passages in his books—great and arresting prose passages, to be sure—were lifted from other scholars’ works. His excuse that he “forgot to add attribution quote marks due to the pressures of time and overwork” carried no weight with posterity—it had occurred too often.

        Phrases, as I noted earlier, are a trickier matter. Anne Rice has used the adjectival phrase “white as goat’s milk” numerous places in her writings. I’ve seen others use it since. I don’t consider these writers grievous plagiarists (though I always think: Aha!—an Anne Rice reader) in the commonly understood sense of the term because they are not lifting entire sentences along with the phrase from her work.

        But be careful! If sparkling-phrase-after-sparkling-phrase and witticism(s) in your work are revealed to be the repurposed work of others, a reader may well wonder: Where is Mimi’s originality here? What am I reading? Why am I reading this?

        A final note: I’ve told you of the writers group I once belonged to that met at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Schaumburg. One of our members (a retired school teacher who should have known better) once came in and read the best free-verse poem she’d ever recited to us. When she finished there were numerous laudatory comments directed her way until she announced, “None of these words are original. I cut arresting phrases and sentences out of articles in newspapers and magazines and rearranged the fragments to make them my own.”

        There was a long, awkward silence.

        “It’s a working poem!” she cried.

        I cleared my throat, shifted uncomfortably in the chair. I remember looking at the floor, unable to meet her eyes.

        “It’s a work of collage,” I pronounced.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. You’re an ace researcher, Mimi. Definitely part of the attraction of your writing. As you say, where would we be without google? Though as SPWilcen points out, writers somehow managed in the past. It seems Georgette Heyer was a meticulous reaseacher: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/01/stephen-fry-on-the-enduring-appeal-of-georgette-heyer
    I get meticulous sometimes, mainly to satisfy myself, but often don’t include it in the book. I was pleased when a reader wrote that I obviously had experience as a diver (not true, but I spent hours researching it), but I dare say I wrote stuff that a proper diver would take issue with.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. SPWILCEN,
    Having used all three, pencil, typewriter, and computer to write something more complex than a Sumerian tallying sheep, I submit that each technology leaves it’s imprint on the writing style. Pencil writing tends to be more straightforward -Hemingway comes to mind- as if there is less tolerance for experimentation. J. G. Ballard said he could always tell whether something was written on a typewriter or a word processor:

    “One can see the difference between fiction composed on the word processor and that on the typewriter. The word processor lends itself to a text that has great polish and clarity on a sentence-by-sentence and paragraph level, but has haywire overall chapter-by-chapter construction.”
    http://www.jgballard.ca/media/1984_paris_review.html

    Hemingway even broke it down more specifically.

    “I write description in longhand because that’s hardest for me and you’re closer to the paper when you work by hand, but I use the typewriter for dialogue because people speak like a typewriter works.”
    https://libquotes.com/ernest-hemingway/quote/lbp3j8k

    Liked by 3 people

    • mimispeike says:

      Three fascinating comments.

      I don’t write by hand because I lay down a sentence or paragraph, then I sculpt it immediately. (Contrary to the universal advice: In a first draft, just get the words down.) That’s so much easier to do on the computer screen.

      Since I surf from thought to thought, I can’t catch the next wave unless I’ve gotten my balance on the previous one.

      Well, that’s bullshit, and we all know it. The truth: I’m neurotically controlling.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I missed the word processor before it was invented. I never liked writing down my thoughts and then having to physically arrange them into communicably coherent prose. Admittedly, J. G. Ballard is right. Scrolling screens are difficult to organize into a chapter by chapter novel. I prefer to print them out to “see” how elements are progressing. But that’s a helluva lot easier on a computer than on a typewriter.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. mimispeike says:

    Wow! From https://publishedtodeath.blogspot.com:

    “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is hailed as the Great American Novel, yet it only sold 21,000 copies when it was published in 1925. By the time Fitzgerald died at the age of 44, he had earned a grand total of $13.13 in royalties.”

    Keep the faith, guys. Don’t take the current market’s NO for an answer. But, as I’ve always said, we should write to please ourselves. That’s the true payoff, in my opinion.

    I’ve submitted my article to The Paperdoll Review. I’ve never seen the magazine, I don’t know what they print. The title caught my eye, and I contacted them: would you consider a piece on my childhood love of paper dolls?

    I’ve given them that, and also my assessment of paper doll collecting today, and some light promotion of Maisie. Will they go for that? We’ll see.

    Somebody refresh my memory. What is the theme of Rabbit Hole V? My desktop is cleared of writing projects. I have the energy to start something for RH.

    Liked by 3 people

      • mimispeike says:

        Just Plain Weird. How did I forget that? Thanks, GD.

        I got my reply from Paperdoll Review: “No thanks, we’ve already published something very similar.”

        Yeah? I doubt that. I think my (very minor) trashing of their bread-and-butter product is the problem. She sells the niche-iest of items to a small audience. I thought I could open her business model up a bit. Not yet, anyway. But we seem to have struck up a conversation. I responded with what I considered a polite final few words.

        She emailed back with information that invited another reply. If I’m being brushed off, she’s not doing a good job of it.

        Liked by 2 people

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