Writing the historical short story

History can provide many different ideas for a short story, inspiring enough creativity in the writer and provide a feeling of authenticity to captivate the reader. Of course, the writer of the historical short story spends time researching the time period to be written about, making notes about the habits, manner of dress, type of food eaten, and social norms, as well as mention important historical figures who were in power at the time, such as Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the governor of Louisiana from 1701–1743.

In bringing the story’s characters to life, the writer should be able to place them in the proper historical context, including the that belong to the time period written about. Use words and phrases common to that time period in the telling of the short story, as the language spoken at the time will make the characters sound authentic. Blend the details in with the story as it unfolds, while at the same time creating the clear-cut personalities of each character in the historical short story.

Say a writer wants to compose a story based on historical New Orleans, after having read a few novels on this southern city rich with history. The writer in question has already read the novels “Voodoo Dreams” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and “Crescent City” by Frances Parkinson Keyes. While both of these books are full-length novels – the latter measuring a whopping 807 pages long – for the historical short story, “Old Creole Days” by George Washington Cable may provide a better model of story length. “Old Creole Days” contains seven short stories which take place in New Orleans 200 years ago.

An illustration from “Old Creole Days”

Quite possibly the most important thing for the writer of the historical short story to keep in mind is that the writing procedure should take time, and not be rushed. Having the passion to write is not enough in this case; having the passion for the time period and historical context in question is absolutely essential in writing the historical short story.

Reconstructing plots from lost films using film booklets

Collectors of paper movie memorabilia might be familiar with and even own a number of film booklets. These film booklets, generally published in Europe, contain film stills plus a condensed story of an American film. The popular Biblioteca Films or Los Films del Far-West publications, by Gato Negro in Barcelona, Spain, are commonly seen in places like antique shops, ephemera shows, or online auction sites. Often printed on newspaper-quality paper, these film books were acquired by cinema patrons in the lobby at the box office. While these film booklets are an intriguing addition to any paper film collection, they can also be used as a valuable tool in writing about a film plot – particularly if none is available through standard Hollywood trade or consumer publications, found at Lantern Media History. The writer may also have an account with Newspapers.com, but there is only minimal information such as cinema ads, showing notices, and a blurb about the movie itself in their database.

Say the writer needs to compose the plot for “The Desert Pirate”. The only source available is a film booklet titled “El Pirata del Desierto”. While the writer has a fairly good grasp of written Spanish – keeping in mind the film booklets from Spain are in Castilian Spanish, not Latin Spanish – can breeze through the reading of the booklet which is about twelve pages long, and come away with a grasp of the characters in the story and the plot. The writer can then type up the plot, include the character names, who appears in the film, who wrote and directed it too. Even a piece of dialogue from the film booklet might be included in the write-up along with the plot to stress a character’s persona. Any outside information, such as filming locations or other onset tidbits published in a newspaper can also be included. Most importantly, if original sources must be included along with the write-up, list the publication and film title it is for.

Catalogueing your electronic research materials

Having an ample supply of electronic research sources on hand is essential for the writer. While more sources can always be added, old ones deleted, or at least placed in a “rarely used” folder, it can be beneficial to organize them to include descriptions as a means of identifying what topics can be derived from for various articles or stories. This is where cataloguing comes in handy, and best of all, no fancy software is required to complete the job. Any spreadsheet like Excel, or OpenOffice Calc, can be used. Only a few columns need to be created, and one spreadhseet file can contain as many tabs as required, each tab containing a different writing topic. The most important thing is, the catalogue is arranged to be of greatest use for the writer, and since it is electronic, can always be modified somewhere down the road for ease of use.

Electronic research sources can be bookmarked in a browser, to be sure, but can also be saved with detailed information as to what type of information it holds. For example, a browser bookmark might read “William K. Everson Collection”, and might also be filed under a folder titled “Research materials”. Were “William K. Everson Collection” to be catalogued, it might also include the following as a description: “Publicity Materials: Press kits and press books”, since this is the primary link used for research purposes at the landing page of: http://www.nyu.edu/projects/wke/. For something more general such as a foreign newspaper archive like Delpher, which is Dutch, the description can be “Dutch digital newspaper archive”.

Suppose a writer decides to write several articles under the blanket topic of comic books. Some obvious research sites might include Comic Book Plus or Public Domain Super Heroes. Depending upon the subtopic being written about, more research sources might be considered, even if they are not explicitly comic book oriented. For example, the subject might be about famous historical women like Calamity Jane, who has appeared in more than one western-themed comic book. Yet she also appeared in Beadle’s Half Dime Library Issue #1 in 1877, a youth oriented publication containing stories of many genres. Such an intriguing fact would be desirable to include in the article, even though these publications are not considered to be comic books. Beadle’s Half Dime Library might include a description of “19th century publication database including scanned issues”.

Experiment with spreadsheet layouts (please see example below), and include only information that is relevant for research purposes.

 

Locating foreign language versions of American film titles

The average person conducting a fairly in-depth Google search on a well-known classic film like “Stagecoach” (1939) will come across a film directory or two that shows the searched film title in another language, like French or German. While this information might seem intriguing, maybe even useful in a game of film trivia, online foreign language film directories serve as a valuable tool for the film researcher. Websites such as Moviecovers.com (French), Filmstarts.de, (German), Moviepilot.de (German), and Spielfilm.de (German) are a few examples of western European based film directories that contain many American films translated into the languages of those countries. Being familiar with a film title in another language permits the researcher to scour many digitized newspapers and magazines like Cine-Mundial (Spain) on that film title to unearth information about the movie being researched, as well as locate rare photos or film stills.

It is helpful if the film title on hand is already in the foreign language, and the researcher is seeking the English translation. For example, the German Tom Tyler film “Sein Freund aus der Prärie” ad, as seen in the German newspaper Tagesbote, Oct 22, 1930.

The literal English translation here is “His Friend from the Prairie”, although there is no English title as such for any of Tom Tyler’s movies. Taking into consideration the publication date of this ad, the American film title is most likely “The Law of the Plains”, a silent film from 1929. For owners of websites dedicated to a particular film star, maintaining a list of foreign language titles for American movies can also be useful for interested fans.

Writing a Historical Photo Story

One of the most common types of articles seen on the Internet today are photo stories. A photo story is a type of article that literally tells the main part of the story using photos, with only two or three short sentences per photo. Websites such as Scribol, Topix, and Headcramp are just a few examples that have photo stories dominating them. Usually media-rich (a photo story layout permits for multiple video-ads), the main value of a photo story is not just to entertain but also to educate. A photo story can comprise a list, or detail a historic event that contains little-known information, or even a mystery. An example of this type of photo story is “Farmer Knocks Over A Rock And Discovers A Secret That Had Been Buried For 5000 Years” at Headcramp.

The most important thing to remember when writing a photo story, however, is to make sure the title is eyecatching and intriguing enough to encourage web users to click on the link to the article. In lay terms such a headline is known as “clickbait”. Because most of the published photo stories online are sponsored by advertisers, naturally readers are also encouraged to click on one of the many ads appearing on the same webpage the photo story appears on. As with any other type of story, the writer should have a working title before composing the actual photo story, then once the story is finished, come up with the actual title. For example, the working title of a story might be “Nat temple in Rakhine province of Myanmar” then changed to “Look at what one Rohingya man found beneath a Nat temple in Myanmar.” Then the photo story might show pictures of the Nat temple, the lay of the land, and the secret of what is beneath the temple foundation.

The number of photos used in a photo story might vary depending upon the website the story is being written for, although anywhere between ten to fifteen images on average can be used. If older non-digital photos are being used for the story, they can be scanned then repaired in image editing programs like Photoshop and Inpaint to make them web-ready. Ideally, all images being used should measure the same size, for example, 600 x 500 pixels. As with any other story or article being written, do not forget to edit and proofread before submitting it to the chosen website for publication.

The title page from the book Thirty-Seven Nats, a Phase of Spirit-Worship Prevailing in Burma, by Sir R. C. Temple. London: W. Griggs. 1906. Public domain, New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The title page from the book Thirty-Seven Nats, a Phase of Spirit-Worship Prevailing in Burma, by Sir R. C. Temple. London: W. Griggs. 1906. Public domain, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Using foreign newspaper archives as research tools for writing about film

While an online newspaper database can be a goldmine for film research, foreign newspaper archives can provide both research information and photo images not easily found elsewhere. Newspapers.com contain a few foreign newspapers from countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Ireland – primarily English-language newspapers – but what it does not contain are newspapers from nations such as France, Spain or Germany. Databases such as International Coalition on Newspapers (ICON), Biblioteca Virtual de Prensa Histórica (Spain), Biblioteca Digital das Artes do Espetáculo (Brazil), and Biblioteca Nacional de España are just a handful of online newspaper archives useful for film research. In particular, the ones in Spain and Brazil are especially helpful in researching information about American-made western films. For example, the subject researched might be a westerns silent-film star like Tom Tyler, and the database to be searched is Biblioteca Digital das Artes Artes do Espetáculo. To run a search, the tab to click on is “Pesquisa”, or Brazilian Portuguese for “Search”. The results show up, in this case a link to Cineart, dated April 4, 1928:

Cineart, April 4, 1928, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Cineart, April 4, 1928, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Here we have a nice photo of Tom with his director Robert de Lacey, along with an article describing how Tom Tyler was selected to succeed western silent film star Fred Thomson at Film Booking Office (FBO) studios:

Cineart, April 4, 1928, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Cineart, April 4, 1928, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

While the textual information is in fact general and can be found in English language sources, the photo of Tom and his director is rare for that time period. 1928 is a significant year for Tom, not just as an actor, but also in his career as a heavyweight weightlifting champion, when he won the AAU championship. As can be seen in the photo, Tom has a magnificent athletic build, in addition to his infectious smile.

It is important to search as many online newspaper sources as possible, regardless of what language the newspaper is in. Articles can always be translated, and the title of the newspaper itself, such as Heraldo de Madrid, is an intriguing original source to list in any film written article.

Locating a lost silent film

Locating a silent film bearing the “lost” status can be a challenge to the researcher who is interested in finding out if a print of the film does in fact exist, whether it be in a film archive or a private collection. A film archive, like any other museum archive, constantly accessions and deaccessions objects in its collections. Trying to locate a lost silent film can be a challenge, since silent film loss is around 75% according to a study conducted by the Library of Congress. This high percentage is due to many reasons, from the film reels being melted down for their silver nitrate content, to the flammability of the nitrate material that 35mm film reels were made of. There was also the problem of a number of these silent films being considered “disposable”, regardless of who made them, as in the case of Edwin Thanhouser. While the American Silent Feature Film Database at the Library of Congress is to some degree a useful tool, it is not always updated regularly, thereby necessitating contact with the film archive supposedly holding a print of the film in question, whether it be EYE in Amsterdam, British Film Institute (BFI), George Eastman Museum, or another of the many film archives throughout the world. In some cases, silent films made between 1928 to 1930 may have a higher survival rate. For example, our subject, Tom Tyler, has three silent films made in 1930 which have not only survived but been restored and digitized for DVD. There is also the issue of his later silent films – those made for Syndicate – which are more likely to exist in the United States, compared to his earlier FBO films, nine of which exist in western European film archives.

So what is the best way to seek out a lost film?

It helps if the film being sought has the primary basic information, which includes title, year released, major star, and production company. In fact, when conducting an inquiry about a particular lost film to a film archive, the more brief and concise the inquiry, the better. Film archivists do not have a lot of time to waste on log email inquiries and so far as finding a lost film or two, there really is no need for a lengthy inquiry. As for online tools, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) is an excellent source containing a list of major film archives globally, although Wikipedia also has an extensive list of film archives. Many universities in the United States have films archives too, like UCLA and USC (Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive). The individual inquiring about the existence of a lost film may not gain an immediate result, but should not give up either. Actively seeking out new sources that might provide leads to locating a lost film, whether it is a forum like Nitrateville or a membership in an organization like The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) may turn up the lost film when it is least expected.

Silent film lost…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Film Daily, September 22, 1929

 

…or found?

 

Using pressbooks as a source for film research and writing

While publicity materials such as pressbooks (also referred to as presskits) are useful tools in writing about films, finding a digital copy online might be a challenge, depending upon the movie written about and the popularity of press materials for the film in question. Some film archives will have a portion of their collections digitalized and easily accessible online like the William K. Everson Archive at NYU, while others may require an in-person visit, such as the film archives at UCLA. Long regarded as the most important marketing tool for a newly released movie, pressbooks are not only valuable as historical film memorabilia, but can be very useful for a number of research and writing projects. For example, a pressbook can be used as a quotable source in a film review, or in an article evaluating how a star was marketed for a particular film. In the eight-page pressbook for “The Forty Niners”(1932), the star is marketed to the hilt when it comes to being described as “a virile trooper” being able to “love with that intensity and gentleness which is so devastating to women.” With descriptions like these, it would not at all be difficult to compose an attention-holding article based on information found in a pressbook. In addition to textual marketing, a variety of posters, taglines, credits, synopses, even burgees (flags) and creative ideas for movie theatres to hold during the premier showing of the movie were available as part of the marketing package.

A pressbook for

In addition to the eight-page pressbooks, four-page pressbooks also exist, although the latter tend to be briefer in publicity materials. For example, this pressbook for the movie “Ridin’ Thru” (1934) displays the typical materials a cinema might use: inserts, half sheets, lobby cards, and one sheets – all of which are movie poster formats. Also included are snapshots and screencaps from the film itself, along with taglines such as the following:

Ridin’ to win or die, Tom Tyler, king of the plains,
performs heroic feats of riding and fighting in “Ridin’ Thru,” his latest horse opera.

Even the simplest of taglines such as this one can inject a stimulating interest in a film, simply by reading about it, then actually wanting to see it. With the abundance of material in pressbooks, many ideas for writing about film can blossom forth, and as usual, be recycled for future projects.

Writing a modern retelling of a folk or fairy tale

One unique writing form is the retelling of a folk tale or fairy tale with a modern twist. Stories like “Cinderella”, “Puss in Boots”, “Snow White”, and “Hansel and Gretel” have all undergone the modernization treatment, appearing in both print and film format. The writer who is seeking to retell a folk or fairy tale might be presented with the problem of which story to pick (in this case sometimes a less-popular story is worth selecting), then the modernization part: what elements of the story should be brought up to date? Also, should the story being retold include any additional elements to give it a personal touch?

While a certain degree of creativity is welcome in the retelling of a selected folk or fairy tale, what should be kept in mind is adhering to the basic plot without deviating too far from the original story.
For instance, a writer might want to retell the Grimm fairy tale “Little One-eye, Two-eyes, and Three-eyes”, and is familiar with the story. This particular fairy tale can be retold from a humorous to a gripping manner, both methods being able to hold the attention of the reader. To illustrate, here is a segment from the said Grimm fairy tale as told in its original manner:

Once it happened that Two-Eyes had to go into the forest to tend the goat; and she went very hungry, because her sisters had given her very little to eat that morning. She sat down upon a hillock, and cried so much that her tears flowed almost like rivers out of her eyes! By and by she looked up and saw a Woman standing by, who asked, “Why are you weeping, Two-Eyes?” “Because I have two eyes like ordinary people,” replied the maiden, “and therefore my mother and sisters dislike me, push me into corners, throw me their old clothes, and give me nothing to eat but what they leave. To-day they have given me so little that I am still hungry.” “Dry your eyes, then, now,” said the wise Woman; “I will tell you something which shall prevent you from being hungry again. You must say to your goat:

“‘Little kid, milk
Table, appear!'”

Little Two-Eyes with her goat

Here we have the same story segment but with a humorous modern twist:

Then one day Two-Eyes left her gray shack for the fields so that Henry, her goat, could graze on tobacco leaves. Two-Eyes was starving as usual, being forced to consume only a scrap from a Slim Jim from breakfast left for her by her family. She knelt on the bank of the river watching the rapids crash against the rocks and thought about ending it all when all of a sudden a lady wearing a brightly colored dress and large gold hoop earrings arrived by caravan. The lady, who was a gypsy, stepped down and asked Two-Eyes what was wrong, for the girl was crying. Gypsy woman asked: “Why do you cry so? The sky is blue and the sun is shining!”

Two-Eyes replied: “Unlike my sisters, I have two-eyes like other people. My older sister has three eyes and my younger has one eye. Besides, is sucks being the middle child. And because of that, they never give me anything decent to eat or wear. All I had was one bite of a Slim Jim and am still hungry. I’m starting to feel slimmer than a Slim Jim.” Two-Eyes started to wail and beat her chest when her visitor replied:

“Honey, forget about crying. I am going to tell you a magic charm that will keep food on your table whenever you need it. Simply say to your goat:

“‘Baby goat, rap
Table, show up!’

Copyright 2017 of retelling “Little One-eye, Two-eyes, and Three-eyes” by Mary Haberstroh.

In the re-telling of this fairy tale, the added elements are the gypsy woman, tobacco leaves, a personal name for the goat, and a Slim Jim. The basic story line remains the same, although just being a segment of the fairy tale. The most important part of retelling a folk or fairy tale is to experiment while writing, add what the writer thinks will work well, revise as with any type of writing, and not be afraid to try a wide variety of elements. After all, it is a fairy tale retelling.

www.gutenberg.org/files/11027/11027-h/11027-h.htm

Using film scripts as research material for silent film reviews

The writer of silent film reviews can look to press releases and reviews appearing in Hollywood trade publications as original source material, but for a more in-depth film review containing details about the story and dialogue, a film script can fill in many of the holes when a copy of the actual film print is not readily available for viewing.

In this case, the silent film being reviewed is “Idaho Red” (1929), which is also a lost film. Some information about “Idaho Red” does exist, but again it is in the form of general plot information easily available, such as through Lantern Media History or Newspapers.com. For a more in-depth film review, a university library collection containing film scripts is the best bet in this case.

Most university library collections in the United States are searchable online but in the rare case, the institution can be contacted by inquiry for the desired research material. Requesting to use the university library’s research material might also necessitate filling out an online form to use the desired material on campus premises. For “Idaho Red”, the film review writer might run a Google search to locate a copy of the film script for it. A quick online search shows that one is at University of California, Los Angeles library, Special Collections: Performing Arts. Upon doing further research at the school library’s website, it is learned that they also hold copies of film scripts for the majority of Tom Tyler’s FBO movies – which means the UCLA is a valuable source for doing research on this particular actor’s early movies.

Once the film review writer is done examining the film script and taken the desired notes (which should include any identifying information such as the date, producers, writers, etc), those notes should be saved as they can be re-used for other articles pertaining to “Idaho Red.”