Tag: silent movies

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.