For a writer, a knowledge of film history, in particular silent film history, can be a serendipitous thing. After all, there are literally hundreds of little-known stories from the era, everything from the Edison Trust Enforcers to the dramatic filming of Von Stroheim’s “The Merry Widow” to the chaos and uncertainty that came with the sound revolution. Each one of these stories is a rich vein of “dramatic ore” that are just begging to be mined. The nice thing is that the movies are a totem embedded in our culture and our communal memory. Everyone has at least heard of silent movies, Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. People who are true fanatics of film will have come across “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Keystone Kops”. They may have sought out the complete version of “Metropolis” or gone through the 3 1/2 hour reconstruction of “Greed” (a true exercise in stamina). Cult figures like Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Fritz Lang provide a certain cachet, a badge of honor, as it were, to “those in the know.”
Historical fiction involves spinning a tale involving real-life events. You don’t even have to entirely adhere to every fact of the real-lid event and you can take as much liberty with it as you wish or which makes good narrative sense. Personally, I like to keep to the accuracy and the facts of the real-life event as much as possible, so that’s why my “silent screen stories” are tales told “around” the historical event and the event is a slice of film history.
For example, my novel “The Ardent Admirer” is the story of Benton Dembow, a fictional film critic for “The New York Courier” who goes to see a preview of Ernst Lubtisch’s “Passion” at the Capitol Theatre and is “struck by lightning” by Pola Negri’s performance in the picture. That’s the historic event in film history. For me, the more engaging part of the event is the real-life intrigue of the time regarding Pola Negri. Here was an actress in1920 that no one in America had ever heard of before, whom no one knew anything about, and who was unavailable for interviews because she was making films in Germany. Without any sources of information, the press–the movie magazines in particular–simply “made her up” or quoted people who might have met her. I used some of those articles verbatim in my novel because they were simply too outré and hilarious to exclude them.
Yet since the story of a man’s growing “obsession” would not be interesting in itself, you need to add a viable narrative that encompasses these events, but which is still its own story. I find the mystery/thriller genre to be most compelling, although it clearly isn’t the only genre you could use. For some reason, getting your hero into trouble and then trying to get him out of trouble seems to fit in with real life movie history as movies themselves have repeatedly used the same genre. It’s a natural symbiosis–and it’s fun to devise a labyrinthine plot around your choice of setting and use of real life characters.
For “The Ardent Admirer” I have Benton Dembow break every rule in order to find out more about Pola Negri, only to find that he can gets no closer–yet gets into more trouble. There’s blackmail, murder, suicide and embezzlement and at the end rescue comes from a most unlikely source. It was fun to write, it’s fun to read and I hope that people are interested.