Thriller Guy is turning the blog over to his alter ego, Allen Appel, for this installment. Don’t screw it up, Appel! TG wants this blog back in the same shape it was in when he handed it over.
Geez, relax, TG, it’s going to be OK. Today’s subject under discussion is Mark Twain and the wonders and dangers of research. Why? I'll get to that in a moment. Well, as always, it will probably take longer than a moment.
As some of you may know, I’ve been working on a new entry in my series of novels featuring Alex Balfour, a time traveling history professor who has drifted back in time to a number of interesting historical periods, among them the Russian Revolution, the American Civil War, the Old West and WWII. In his adventures out West in Twice Upon a Time, he befriends Mark Twain and the two of themhave a exciting time floating down the Mississippi River on a raft with a pair of American Indians who are escaping back to their homelands. Also on the raft are two homicidal maniacs. Blood, justice and redemption flow like the swift current of the river.
Aside: I’m often asked, as are all writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Stephan King has a mildly amusing response on the order of “from the mom and pop writing store down on the corner,” but the book with Twain as a character, Twice Upon a Time, came about because of a comment from a film producer. My first book, Time After Time received very nice reviews when it first came out, especially in the New York Times Book Review ((January 26, 1986). What happens when this occurs -- a good Times review -- you get a lot of interest from Hollywood. My agent was flooded with requests from filmmakers for a copy of the book, which he dutifully sent out. Unfortunately, no one bought it. Why? Not because they didn’t like it, they did, but because it was set in Russia during the days of the revolution. Too expensive to produce, they all said, adding: tell Mr. Appel to set his next book in the United States. OK, I could do that. So I settled on opening the next one, Twice Upon a Time, at the great Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 and ending it high on hill overlooking the final battle known as Custer’s Last Stand. I figured you couldn’t get more American than that. The Exposition might cause a few difficulties as far as re-creation goes, but surely all the western scenery was still there for the taking. The upshot of the story is while Twice Upon a Time garnered nice reviews, no one bought the film rights for this one either. So much for doing what a film producer advises a writer to do.
Using Twain as the “buddy” in Twice Upon a Time did not immediately spring to mind when I was blocking out the book in outline. It was only when reading about the exposition did I find that both Twain and Custer attended the fair. Did they meet? Who knows? I found no record that they did, but it wasn’t important to my story. The idea was planted and would soon grow into an entire novel. These two famous men might not have known each other, but they certainly met my time traveling hero, Alex Balfour.
Aside: Readers who frequent the Thriller Guy blog know how important research is to TG and to me, and any other genre of historical novelist. TG has warned of the dangers of spending too much time wandering the labyrinthine byways of the Internet, but do I take TG’s advice? Not always. So after writing the above paragraph about Custer and Twain meeting, I thought I would look around and see if they ever did meet. It seems the answer is no, but along the way I discovered a fascinating historical fact that is more than enough to spark an entire novel in some fertile writer’s mind. I am resisting the pull of this factoid, as I have my own book that must be written. Here it is.
In a Wikipedia article about Manor House, a stately home in Soho, London, which was built in 1678… The White House brothel. In 1776 the house, known then as The White House, was bought by Thomas Hopper, who, between 1778 and 1801 styled it as an hotel although all contemporary accounts point to its real business being as a high-class magical brothel. The White House is described as being garishly decorated and had lavish themed rooms including the "Gold Room", "Silver Room" and "Bronze Room", a "Painted Chamber", "Grotto", "Coal Hole" and most famously the "Skeleton Room" which contained a mechanized human skeleton designed to scare the staff and patrons alike. Henry Mayhew called the White House a "notorious place of ill-fame" and wrote: “Some of the apartments, it is said, were furnished in a style of costly luxury; while others were fitted up with springs, traps, and other contrivances, so as to present no appearance other than that of an ordinary room, until the machinery was set in motion. In one room, into which some wretched girl might be introduced, on her drawing a curtain as she would be desired, a skeleton, grinning horribly, was precipitated forward, and caught the terrified creature in his, to all appearance, bony arms. In another chamber the lights grew dim, and then seemed gradually to go out. In a little time some candles, apparently self-ignited, revealed to a horror stricken woman, a black coffin, on the lid of which might be seen, in brass letters, ANNE, or whatever name it had been ascertained the poor wretch was known by. A sofa, in another part of the mansion was made to descend into some place of utter darkness; or, it was alleged, into a room in which was a store of soot or ashes.”
This scenes this paragraph calls to mind just scream to be written into a BBC series. If anyone picks up on this idea, Thriller Guy gets a cut.
What was I talking about? O, yeah, Mark Twain. Because Twain is a character in the book I’m now working on, whenever I see his name mentioned I read what the reference is to. In this case, it was a small notice saying that the only footage ever made of Twain, a small piece a few minutes long, shot by Thomas Edison, had been reworked and cleaned up using modern techniques so the movement was more natural. (Because something is preventing me to imbed the video,) That piece of film can be found here, and I recommend looking at it. I had seen the original footage when I was working on Twice Upon a Time, many years ago, but it was difficult to make out because of the deterioration of the film stock and the herky-jerky movement. While there are still problems, the new version is vastly improved, and I find, fascinating. It’s not often that a historical novelist comes across such a valuable artifact. While the details would probably not interest most people, I was fascinated to note things like how Twain’s famous white suit, which you always see in photographs as being pristine, is beyond rumpled, and Twain looks kind of seedy in it. His hair is likewise not the glowing corona that it appears in official photos, but sort of like the suit, kind of rumpled. Even though the film was made in the year before Twain died, he seems full of life and an easy vigor, which was a surprise. In the early frames Twain walks around the corner of his house, Stormfield, and past the camera and then, magically, appears coming around the same corner and walks towards the camera once again. Why? Then he sits at a table having tea with his daughters Clara and Jean, who laugh at something Twain is saying to them. Jean spends some time putting on her hat and securing it with a hat pin (who sees that in this day and age?) and then they all get up and walk off screen. As I said, invaluable to a writer who is writing about Twain.
It is also interesting to note that we have no recordings of Twain’s voice. Edison made some, but they were on wax cylinders and melted during a fire, and a cylinder made by Giani Bettini (a pioneer audiophile) was destroyed in WWII. The closest thing we have is a recording from Twain’s famous frog story being read by a noted actor and accomplished mimic of the time William Gillette, who grew up next door to Twain and knew him well. Here is that recording. He sounds like Hal Holbrook, who must have referenced it when putting together his one act play about Twain.
The point here? Beware of research; it is a wonderful thing for a writer, but a great thief of time. And also a wonderful excuse, as in: “I’ll start my book once I feel I really know my material.” It’s nice to have that confidence and I applaud writers who can work to achieve this mastery and then start right in on their book, but I, and Thriller Guy, think that what you need to do is jump right in on the writing and do the research as you go, or after you finish a draft. Journalists have a wonderful device, the letters TK, which when inserted in a work in progress mean that more information will be added later, TK = “to come.” Use this device whenever you’re really rolling and don’t want to stop and break the flow. You can always look something up and put it in later, but you can’t always regain momentum when you break your train of thought.