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.

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.

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.”

Writing the Creative Western Story

While the average western story conjures up names like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, such works of fiction need not be confined to the realm of traditional westerns. Case in point: “Bonanza” television episodes “Hoss and the Leprechauns” written by Robert Barron, and “Sam Hill”, written by David Dortort. The former title is self-explanatory, but the latter is about a friend of the Cartwrights named Sam Hill who also happens to be a mystic (portrayed by Claude Akins). These stories were not the first of their kind, for the concept of creative westerns existed during the early twentieth century.

For an idea of what earlier creative western stories looks like, here are three different ones made into silent films starring our subject, Tom Tyler:

“Lightning Lariats” – written by F. A. E. Pine and George Worthing Yates

“The Sonora Kid” – written by J. G. Hawks and Percy Heath

“Red Hot Hoofs” – written by George Washington Yates Jr.

“Lightning Lariats” (1927) is about a young king (Frankie Darro) named Alexis who has been exiled from his kingdom of Roxenberg and made his way to the western part of the United States with his governess. They meet Tom Potter (Tom Tyler) who becomes the guardian of Alexis and falls in love with his governess (Dorothy Dunbar) but is also the target of a jealous girl. In this case, we have the exiled foreign leader element (which by chance later recurred in popular sitcoms like “Gilligan’s Island”) which adds the twist to the western story.

From Moving Picture World, January 22, 1927:
Lightning Lariats Film Review

“The Sonora Kid” (1927) welcomes the Old English characters of King Arthur and the Round Table into the western plot. Quite possibly one of the most original stories of its time – a lobby card from that period depicts two knights jousting – the story opens with Tom the cowpuncher reading a book of King Arthur Tales to the ranch dog, Beans. As an employee of Arthur Butterworth’s ranch (of course the ranch owner also has a very English-sounding name), Tom soon finds himself wearing a suit of armor and challenging a wealthy millionaire from San Francisco (also in a suit of armor) in a jousting match for the hand of Butterworth’s daughter Phyllis (Peggy Montgomery).

The Sonora Kid lobby card

From Shamokin News Dispatch, Shamokin, PA, September 10, 1927:
The Sonora Kid theatre news item

“Red Hot Hoofs” (1926) is centered around a boxing ring set out west, with one of the boxers, Tom Buckley (Tom Tyler) surviving three rounds with a heavyweight champion (Al Kaufman) – and wins the thousand dollar offer made him. Tom of course gets to showcase his athletic prowess (at the time he already won two Amateur Athletic Union weightlifting awards) and also finds himself getting involved with a bank robber and of course a girl (Dorothy Dunbar) who he ends up rescuing. Incidentally, the boxing match element recurs in Tom Tyler’s 1936 talkie, “Rip Roarin’ Buckaroo.”

From The Courier-News, Bridgewater, NJ, April 15, 1927:
Picture of Tom Tyler in Red Hot Hoofs

From Photoplay, January 1927
Tom Tyler in Red Hot Hoofs

When considering a unique twist in writing a western story, do not be afraid to experiment with different outside elements, no matter how outlandish they may sound at first glance. So long as the plot is clearly defined and the story engaging for the reader, several different elements can be combined to create a unique western story.

Writing Fan Fiction: Past and Present

Modern fan fiction has existed since the early twentieth century when the biggest name Hollywood stars figured in stories that appeared in small publications frequently purchased by fans themselves. One popular publishing company, El Gato Negro (Barcelona, Spain), manufactured series of booklets with colorful covers, inside illustrations, and stories about actors. More often than not there would be a whole series of these booklets containing ongoing stories, similar to the film serials of the 1920’s through 1940’s, which were purchased and saved as collectibles. Below is an example of an early work of Hollywood fan fiction:

The Adventures of Tom Tyler King of the Cowboys

The title reads: “The Adventures of Tom Tyler, The King of the Cowboys” published by El Gato Negro circa 1930, and the booklet is sixteen pages long although the first page starts at page number 113, which is fair to assume this is one of a number of series (the last page of the booklet has FIN at the bottom, which means The End). To complicate matters, there is no indication of a volume number on this particular issue. The first page of this booklet appears below:

First page of Tom Tyler King of the Cowboys

A few characters in the story are mentioned: Tom Tyler himself, and his pal Chispita – a nickname for his frequent silent film co-star, Frankie Darro. The plot itself is a typical western story involving bandits, Indians, money, and the sheriff. The writing style is simple, and the two illustrations in the booklet (one appears below) provide a visual of our hero in the story.

Illustration of Tom Tyler King of the Cowboys

Even though this particular booklet is only one of a series, it gives us an idea of what fan fiction was like back in the early 1930’s. How does this translate to fan fiction of the twenty-first century, using a popular actor of the 1920’s and 1930’s? Following is an example, the opening segment of a story set in the west but with some unusual elements not found in your average western:

Damsel in Distress

Tom Tyler of the Cattlemen’s Association was making a call on a client who filed a claim about his stolen cattle. Since it was a local call, Tom left after lunch during the day to visit his client, a Bill Leek, who recently bought a farm including livestock in Arizona. Tom rode on his white steed, Lightning, and because the weather was beautiful, started to sing a quaint little cowboy song. As he rode along he wore a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat, a dark blue button down shirt, jeans rolled up at the cuffs to show off his brown leather boots and silver spurs, and his gun and ammo belt. As he passed by a rocky crevice, he attracted the attention of a young lady with long brown hair, wearing a feminine cowboy outfit: a cotton white shirt with rounded collar, pale blue embroidery down the front on either side of the buttons, and blue jeans with tan ankle boots. She also wore a light blue scarf with a western pattern in the fabric. She looked at the man pass below her, thinking him to be very handsome, and smiled when she saw him smile. Sitting upon her painted horse named Daisy, she scrambled down the rocky crevice and started to follow Tom. She heard him continue to sing and waited until he finished. Being so quiet, Tom did not hear someone follow him until he finished his song. Then she started to sing in a beautiful soprano:

Copyright 2016 “Damsel in Distress” by Mary Haberstroh.

So while the storytelling style here too is simple, it is clearly modern, set outside of time, with the remaining story combining elements from the 1970’s and 1990’s to present-day 2016. Needless to say, fan fiction can be simple or complex, as creative as the writer desires it to be.