Making Movies in 1910 New York

Vitagraph Studios Brooklyn, New York


I’ve been taking a deep dive into the world of early film-making in New York. It’s the backdrop for a large part of my work in progress, and something I really had no idea about before.

I didn’t know, for instance, that D.W. Griffith’s first films were made in the New York area, that his studio was based near 14th street.

I also didn’t know that most of the movies were made outdoors for the sake of the light, that filming indoors required resources most small studios didn’t have. That meant that acting in moving pictures was a seasonal job, and actors had to do other things—perform on stage in clubs and theaters, for instance—in order to make a livable income.

Florence Turner
Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl

The fact that actors weren’t identified by name until 1910 came as a surprise to me, too. In the end, the studios couldn’t avoid the cult of celebrity, which they knew would lead to having to pay well-known actors much more. Florence Turner, The Vitagraph Girl, wasn’t credited by name until 1910, despite having started with the studio several years earlier. Her salary was a princely $22 a week. She was contracted to be an actress and a seamstress at first. Of course, the men were paid more then as now.

Most interesting of all to me was discovering that one of the early pioneers of narrative filmmaking was a woman: Alice Guy Blaché, who worked for the Gaumont company in France, and then came to New York and started her own studio. My story doesn’t neatly work into her life, but I’m making her presence felt as best I can.

Biggest frustrations: Trying to find out technical information about how the movie cameras worked, the editing process, how films were duplicated, aside from the obvious, and what the inside of a nickelodeon looked like.

But I’ll keep digging as I write.


What I’m Doing

It’s been months since I’ve posted anything here. I know I only have a few readers, but I keep this as much for my own record of things I’m doing, research, writing progress, and life.

Life has been tough this past year. Globally speaking, I have it easy of course. But personally, I saw my 93-year-old father decline steadily toward his eventual death on March 9. Because he was in Florida and I live in Massachusetts, I spent more time on planes this year than I have in the past ten at least. And other family difficulties abound, reminding me that having children is a lifelong joy, and a lifelong source of heartache and shared pain.

One of the saddest things for me lately is watching as our elected officials seem to be turning their backs on the real health and economic needs of women. Their “alternative facts” are creating our “alternate reality.” I’m scared in a way I’ve never been, having grown up in the 70s, after Roe v. Wade and after a lot of protections for the rights of women were put in place.

Through it all, I’ve been struggling to continue writing. I’ve been working on one novel for about a year and a half, and am on my fourth complete rethink and rewrite. The basic premise is still there, but working with my patient and helpful agent and soul-searching about why none of my six novels was a breakout book, I’m taking a hard look at the craft of writing. I’ll never be someone who can churn out what the market wants at any given time. But I can make sure what I produce is as good as I can make it, when it comes to the writing itself, the power of the story, the strength of the characters, and the structure. I think I’ve always instinctively produced books that are structurally solid and coherent, but thinking more deeply about why has opened up some things to me. I’ve taken a writing workshop with Randy Susan Myers (her latest is The Widow of Wall Street), and an online story structure course. Time has been an enemy, but I’ve done my best to keep up, and have kept having revelations that I think will benefit my book in the end.

Now I’m sitting in a quirky little Moroccan cafe in the center of town. I could have gotten right into my Saturday chores (cleaning, garbage, laundry). Now that I’m once again in a corporate 9-5:30 job, Saturdays are my only day for doing those things. But I decided to take myself somewhere new, somewhere out of my usual environment, and at least write this post.

For anyone who’s interested, I’m still working in 1909 New York. My novel involves the early film industry there, and has been a lot of fun to research. It’s also led me to a discovery about my books: I really don’t think I’m writing historical fiction in the way people generally think of it, which may be why I’ve had trouble catching on with a wide audience. I’m not about the big names and famous events. I’m interested in how different time periods affected the people who lived them, day by day, especially women. My “what ifs” seldom involve marquee names, except as tangential.

So here’s my epiphany: I don’t write historical fiction. I write women’s fiction in historical settings. It’s not quite the same as historical romance, which is romance set in a different time period—often well-researched and well-written—but that same romance could probably be transplanted to another time period and work almost as well. My stories depend on their period to occur at all. I know this for a fact, because I tried shifting the time period of this novel ahead to the World War I era, and it simply wasn’t the same story, or the same characters, conflicts, wants, and opportunities.

If you’re reading this, thanks for still following me! I promise upcoming posts about Vitagraph and Biograph, about Florence Turner and Maurice Costello, about Gladys Hulette and J. Stuart Blackton. And for good measure, D.W. Griffith is in there too. Hoping the best for all of you.


Barren landscapeOn this day, the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I’m thinking about silence.

Only once in my life have I ever experienced something approaching profound silence. It was in 1975, during the spring I think. I went to a cottage in rural East Anglia, England with my friend Caroline’s family. We’d had a lively drive, lots of fast, witty repartee—one of my favorite things about Britain and the British, and arguably the factor that led me to spend ten years of my life there—and the typical family joking and teasing. We’d left London early evening and arrived late at night.

I was completely unprepared for what happened when we arrived, when the car engine turned off. I stepped out of the car and doubled over and covered my ears to protect them from the intense roar of the silence.

Because that’s what it was. I spoke, just to break into it, just to make some noise that would cut through the negative aural space that manifested itself as a painful wash of white noise, heavy on the high frequencies. There was no wind, no wildlife sounds, we were too far from the coast to hear waves. The night was moonless, so inky black that I had to walk with my hands out in front of me and felt as though my next step would tumble me into the abyss. It seemed an eternity until someone finally turned on the light in the cottage, and I could see where I was going. And not until we were inside, and our footsteps and voices and nighttime preparations reverberated off the walls, floors, and ceilings of the house did the oppressive silence fade.

It was a frightening, unexpected experience. Even when I’d been out in the country up in Northern Vermont watching the Perseid meteor shower under a moonless blanket of stars, or miles from civilization in the American west on a family camping vacation, I had never understood what the complete absence of sound might be like.

I have never had such an experience again. I don’t understand it, I don’t see how somewhere not really all that far from London could have been so profoundly silent. Perhaps it was a phenomenon created by my own ears. I will never know.

What I do know is that when we say we value silence, that’s not the kind of silence we mean. We mean the absence of certain sounds: people talking, a radio or television, music, machinery. We don’t mean the absence of wind, or bodies shifting in chairs, or pets squeaking in their sleep, or birds chirping, or insects buzzing. We don’t mean the complete absence of any audible evidence of life.

I guess what this has to do with 9/11, or any tragic, sudden death of one or thousands of people, is that it makes me wonder at what point do the dying enter a realm of total silence? Is there a split second where they recognize that place before there is nothing? And is there fear in that moment, or peace?

Unfathomable, unanswerable questions, just as unfathomable and unanswerable to me as the question of how any human being could intentionally cause the death or even suffering of another.

And yet, people do. Every day. Which is why I suppose that that one day when so many souls crossed over from life to the unknown beyond—and knew it was happening, could foresee their fate—haunts me.

It always will.

The writing rollercoaster

Early coasterI’ve been deep in a first draft of a new novel, also set in early 20th century New York, and I observed something little, but telling at least for me. Writing a first draft is like riding a rollercoaster. I’m not talking about the ups and downs, the places where it goes fast and where you get stuck. I’m talking about how hard it is in the beginning, how you chug and chug up and up until you finally get to the point where you can “see” the whole landscape of your novel, and then whoosh! Things start to move really fast in the drafting process. That’s where the little ups and downs, the unexpected twists and turns occur.

For me, the chugging lasts until about 30,000 words…

Death and Facebook

facebook-256This isn’t a post about killing time, just want to get that out of the way right at the start.

Every morning, before I get out of bed, I turn on my iPhone and check my FitBit app to see how well I slept (I don’t know how accurate it is, but it interests me to see if my own perceptions of a restful or not night’s sleep have any basis in the physical), then check my email quickly, then go on Facebook and scroll through new stories that came in overnight. This morning, I saw a post from the son of one of my Facebook acquaintances, someone I knew very little about but whose posts I occasionally commented on. Her son was thanking everyone on Facebook for the support his mother received from us all in her final days. She had passed away the day before.

This was not an old woman, and the last thing I read from her haunts me. She said she was on oxygen, the fast-moving sarcoma was relentless, and that she probably had only days. And then, “Is this really all there is?”

It was a glimpse into dying that I have never had, that I avoid, that disturbs and terrifies me. Her question hung in the air, despite the hundreds of comments from concerned friends and acquaintances like me, saying meaningless things like “Courage!” “I’ll pray for you!” “You’re in my thoughts!”

But apparently they weren’t really meaningless. I imagine facing death is the loneliest thing in life. Most people, at best, have family around them. All too frequently I imagine people die alone. My mother did. But it was sudden, or I or my father at least would have tried to be there. That this woman could reach out to hundreds of people and ask for their thoughts and support when she was about to expire is nothing short of miraculous in its way. I doubt very much that Mark Zuckerberg thought about this consequence of what was initially a hookup app when he developed it.

A few of my other friends shared the sudden loss of their spouses on Facebook. Their pain and sadness, the love and concern that poured out from all their friends, some known to me, many not, touched me deeply.

Others have shared journeys through horrible illness that have so far had happier outcomes. A woman who had a heart transplant and is now going through rehab and all manner of other setbacks and steps forward is incredible. And although there are many who would think that these things are deeply personal and shouldn’t be shared with a wide public, many of whom are only known through what we choose to reveal of ourselves on Facebook, I can’t help seeing it as a great positive. A way we can connect across time zones and oceans, across generations and life choices.

I’m not saying that the dreaded FB isn’t, in fact, a time suck, a place where thoughtless memes are taken as fact and spread like the measles, where I go for my daily dose of adorable baby animal videos to take me away from whatever work I have to do. I’m just saying that it’s taken me to some very deep, personal places through bearing witness to the lives—and deaths—of others.

Finding the Story

Finding the storyI’m betwixt and between right now. My critique group is making its way through my recently finished novel and offering up some great observations—don’t underestimate the importance of beta readers: if they’re good, they keep you honest, and point out flaws you knew were there but didn’t have the strength or the will to fix before.

But that’s not really the point of this post. Or actually, it sort of is. This particular book, the one that takes place in 1910 New York (it’s called White Poison), took me a while to find, I mean, get to the real story. I had one character almost from the outset, Rose. A college-educated upper-class young woman who wants to do more with her life than be merely decorative. But finding the other characters that would bring the story to life took several agonizing tries. I wrote three complete drafts of three different stories, then revised the whole thing about six or seven times. Having other people respond to the characters and their relationships to each other really helped me focus on who was essential to the emerging story, and the best way to tell it.

At one point, I had a flighty, lost socialite, a school friend of my main character. She had some great scenes, including one going to the outdoor circus in Coney Island. But I mercilessly cut her and all her scenes out after the first draft. She was interesting, but not central to the point.

I also slashed a fascinating historical figure (whom I’d love to return to in another novel): Ann Morgan, daughter of the infamous J.P. Morgan, who refused to marry and may have been a lesbian, taking up causes that were in direct opposition to her father’s business interests. She, too, was superfluous. I knew I needed two college-educated females to carry out the main plot, which is based on something that really happened. Morgan simply didn’t suit, and fitting her in was a distraction.

When I finally created Emma, an Irish immigrant who works in a department store and whose life gets turned upside down in part due to an encounter with Rose, everything started to click into place. There’s nothing like that feeling when the story drags you along with it, when what has to happen seems inevitable, instead of a desperate struggle to write something your readers will believe, something that is true.

It wasn’t until I found my characters and then was able to flesh them out, give them conflicts and flaws and hopes and fears, that the actual story revealed itself. I always knew what had to happen, but what happens in a novel is different from its story. Plot vs. theme, I suppose.

Now I’m starting at the beginning again. I’m researching events, timelines, historical characters, in hopes that a story will start to emerge and I can put the first tentative lines down on paper—rather, on screen. Undoubtedly the process will drive me near to insane, but I can no more not undertake this crazy task than not get out of bed in the morning.

I’ll let you know when I pin down that elusive next story.

Working differently


I tend to neglect this blog when I’m on a roll with my writing–which I suppose is understandable. The good news is that I have been writing a lot and I’m close to getting another draft of my WIP done. I’m getting to the hardest part: making it all come together without having everything seem predictable or trite, writing an action scene that has to feel real, from several different  points of view, several of which may not make the final cut.

But at this crucial point, where I hoped to get to that “the end” moment so that I can roll up my sleeves and get into editing, with the knowledge of what happens at the end and what has to be in place earlier on to make it all believable, at this pivotal juncture, my laptop decided to freak out and is in for repair. The good news is that it can be fixed and won’t cost me anything, despite being 4 years old and technically obsolete in Apple’s view. It’s part of a recall.

Of course, I woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany about how the opening needed to be written. And what I need to do with all my characters to round them out. So what was I to do? Hope I remember until I get my laptop back? Or find another way to work?

Everything is further complicated by the fact that I use Scrivener for Mac, so I couldn’t even hook into my external backup drive and fish out the document to work on.

The pressing need to write won the battle. I’ve been using my Kindle fire to write separate scenes, trying to reconstruct what’s there. It’s been an interesting exercise. Perhaps you purists wonder why I don’t simply handwrite. I have the worst penmanship, and it’s entirely possible that I wouldn’t be able to read my work afterwards. And then I’d have to key it in anyway. These haltingly typed scenes (the keyboard is not fabulous) can at least be emailed to myself and copied and pasted, if I decide I want to use any of them.

But that’s not really relevant to the whole exercise of working differently. One thing I sometimes do if I’m having a problem with a scene is copy and paste it into an email. The different font, the different formatting, makes me see things I didn’t notice  before.

I’m a fairly linear writer. I need to tell a story from beginning to end, let my characters take control occasionally and let things unfold. Without being able to see these few scenes in context I am forced to think differently. I allow myself to isolate something, perhaps look at it more closely with a pickier lens. I permit myself to step outside the tyranny of a timeline, spending more energy on the moment. What is she really feeling right now? What are the external conditions, and how do they affect her?

I’m not entirely certain that the results will be useful, but maybe this forced hiatus from my laptop will refresh my writing.

If nothing else, I’ll really appreciate having a normal keyboard!

1910: Newspapers, Nickelodeons, and Nickel Weeklies

thumbnailOne of the most enjoyable aspects of writing a historical novel is getting glimpses of how ordinary people led their lives in times gone by. Standard biographies of famous people, traditional accounts of history—these rarely include such information, so if you want to discover more, you sometimes have to get inventive with your research techniques.

For my current WIP, I needed to know what people knew about what was going on in their city and the world, how they got their information, what they read on a daily basis and what they read for entertainment. Because I’m working in the early 20th century, information like this is a great deal easier to find out than it would be in, say, the 17th century—partly because of the wealth of searchable newspaper archives online, and plenty of period photographs.

Here’s a little of what I discovered:

New York had several well-established daily papers by 1910. Some of the more famous include The New York Tribune (founded in the mid-nineteenth century by Horace Greeley), The New York World, The New York Sun, The New York Times, and The New York Journal (Hearst’s paper). All of them published morning and evening YellowKideditions they sold for a penny, making them affordable to all but the poorest residents. The World and the Journal engaged in a circulation war, writing sensationalist headlines and even sometimes fictionalizing their news reports, in the late 19th century. This was the origin of what was called Yellow Journalism.

Investigative journalism was also born during this period At the time, politicians and others who found themselves the target of this practice called it muckraking. A particularly famous example is the investigation into Standard Oil’s practices under John D. Rockefeller by the progressive woman journalist, Ida Tarbell.

Ida Tarbell
Ida Tarbell

When it came to more entertaining options, New Yorkers enjoyed the Nickelodeon. These were store-front moving picture theaters that cost a nickel to enter, and where viewers could watch a series of ten-minute or so films in a wide variety of genres—comedy, drama, documentary, and more. Their heyday in New York was from 1905 to 1907, but they remained very popular in the poorer neighborhoods for several more years.
New Yorkers also bought Nickel Weeklies,the precursors of the Dime Novel, in the thousands. These heavily-illustrated publications served up serialized fiction and adventure stories to many different age groups. Readers came back week after week to get the next installment of their favorite tales. Their colorful—almost lurid covers are now highly collectible.

Secret_Service_COLORAs with all research, knowing what to leave out is just as important as what you put in. My characters won’t sample all these forms of news and entertainment on the page. But I’ll know all these things are a part of their lives off the page.

Would you like some help with your novel?

manuscript-300x201Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I enjoy writing about the process and the craft of writing. Over the years, I have helped aspiring writers with their work, editing and commenting. Several have gone on to be published by major publishers. Others have self-published.

I’ve decided that I’d like to do more of this, so I’ve taken the plunge, and made a page on this site that describes some of my services, and where interested writers can purchase either an assessment of 20 pages of your manuscript, or a full manuscript review.

I am also available to do line editing and work on a one-on-one basis with writers. Anyone interested in those services should email me.

A page from George Orwell's 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!
A page from George Orwell’s 1984 with some pretty serious editing going on!

Of course, it’s very awkward to sell oneself  (although I’ve spent a chunk of my life writing copy to sell all manner of other products), but I got a very sweet note on my Writing Coach Facebook Page from someone I worked with a few years ago, the wonderful Janet Butler Taylor:

Susanne was the very first person I turned to when I first started my writing journey. Without her help and guidance I would never have come as far as I have. She is an amazing writing coach, and I will be forever grateful to her. Thank you so, so much, Susanne!!


So if you are looking for some practical, real-world help polishing your novel, please think of me!

Frozen in Time

w031230a077I’m not sure why I decided to do it, but after my chores were done today I sat down and watched the Disney movie, Frozen. I’d seen it before with my grandchildren, and was as much focused on them and their reactions as I was on the movie itself at that time. Watching it concentratedly, by myself, taught me a few things about storytelling, and about why these musical fairy tales capture the imagination of children and adults alike.

First, I’ll mention the gorilla in the room: music. And not just background music, but songs that are an integral part of the story. I grew up loving musicals. But let’s face it: there’s quite a stretch of the imagination to be made when watching a film musical with live actors. It just isn’t natural to burst into song to express feelings in the midst of a movie. The vast majority of live-action movie musicals got their beginnings on Broadway or London’s West End. The construct of theater is openly artificial, and so somehow having musical numbers performed by characters on the stage is OK. As theatergoers, we’ve already suspended our disbelief at the door. The movies that were original musicals usually wove the idea of music into the characters themselves (think Singing in the Rain).

But live-action movies are so relentlessly real—even when they’re science fiction or fantasy—that to have a character suddenly start singing actually jars us out of the moment instead of flowing seamlessly through an already altered reality. Yet music is elemental; we need songs in our lives, and songs have the ability to capture emotion in ways that words can’t always.

Enter the animated movie musical. Like a stage play, we have to accept the essential unreality of the story right from the outset. When animated characters—even ones who are made to look hyper-real—start singing, it feels natural and heightens the emotion.

snow_flake_01A book is not a musical, of course. But it has to have moments of heightened emotion, moments where the fictional time slows to allow a character or characters to blossom.

This is essentially the epiphany I had while watching Frozen. The simple manipulation of time at the service of storytelling and character delineation is masterful.

Take the parallel openings: first, we are introduced to Kristoff as a young boy with his reindeer pet/friend Sven, set against a classic work song. Then we go to the two young sisters playing, starting out very innocent, but the one with the magic accidentally mortally wounds her younger sister, creating the necessity for erasing her memory of the magic, and for the older sister to be hidden away so that she won’t be a danger to others.

Enter the first character song. The song serves to express Anna’s loneliness, and also facilitates the passage of time, racing us forward to their parents’ tragic voyage, Elsa’s coming of age, her coronation, the ball where Anna falls in love, accepts a proposal of marriage, angers her sister, and causes her to bring perpetual winter down on the land as she runs away and hides herself in her ice castle on the north mountain. This is the moment for another song, the most famous of the movie.

I didn’t look at how much time elapsed, but this all happens very quickly. Four big plot points in about 20 minutes. A huge amount of action in what is basically backstory. Because the central drama is Anna’s quest to find her sister and bring her back to Arandelle. There’s a cute set-piece for Olof the snowman, but otherwise we’ve heard all the songs by this point in the movie, and themes circle back like leitmotifs to foreshadow or underpin.

w031230a113With the exception of Olof’s song, nothing in the movie doesn’t advance the plot. The crescendo toward the moment when Anna performs her act of true love—not the expected kiss from Kristoff, but the act of sacrificing herself for her sister—is unrelenting, and the denouement  swift and satisfying, with all main characters having grown and learned from the experience.

This all seems like obvious storytelling 101. So what did I learn from it?

1. Don’t let your characters wait around for something to happen. Push them relentlessly forward on the path of the plot.

2. Look for those moments where you need to suspend the pace, where a song would go, and use it to add contrast to the action.

3. Don’t go for the obvious ending, the one you were probably thinking of when you started out. Let your characters surprise you, and discover that the real theme of your story isn’t the “first kiss,” but the act of sisterly love.

All this is much easier said than done, of course. But it did make me realize that my current WIP isn’t surprising enough, doesn’t have the pace and momentum it needs. I’ve been frozen in the story, and I need a little magic to make it sing.