The Joys of Research

Joe’s Post #176

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

Is it possible to hate Tom Cruise, but love a lot of his movies?

For me, I have a love-hate relationship with research. Like I have a love-hate relationship with Tom Cruise movies or hot curry.

But I come from an age when if you wanted to find something out, you had to go to a library or have a super knowledgeable friend or just make it up. It was an age long ago, an age of encyclopedias, and age long forgotten now.

Because today, we have the internet.

Now if I want to find something, the internet usually has the answer. How cool is that?

radioAnd it has answers for some pretty esoteric stuff. Like, what radio sets did the Germans use in 1940? I mean, seriously, someone has a website about this?

Well, yes, yes someone does.

Or using google maps to figure out how long it takes to get from the Rijksmuseum to the Oud Kerk in Amsterdam.

Or finding pictures of streetcars in 1930s Rotterdam.

Good lord, you wouldn’t believe the stuff you can find. Sure, it’s not always right there in front of you, and I am far from the best search-word user, but the internet is an amazing thing and before Skynet takes over and limits my access, I intend to use the hell out of it.

The only downside is, though, (and this is where the ‘hate’ part of the relationship comes in), it can become a MASSIVE distraction to the actual task of writing. How many hours have I spent looking up small details that would make my story better? Police call boxes in Chicago, 1930. The Red Light District in Amsterdam (ok, I may have gotten seriously sidetracked with pictures of this one). Uniforms of the Dutch army 1939. Hitler’s paintings.

Anne Frank's pictures

Anne Frank’s pictures

It’s fun, even if it is time-consuming.

But without such access, how would I ever be able to make my setting come to life, make my characters interact with proper historical items, or have the correct music playing on the correct device and using the appropriate speakers?

For any novel written in the time I’m living, I don’t really need to look up those things, but for a historical fiction, it’s an absolute necessity.

I am thankful for the age that I live in.


But I liked the book so much better than the movie!

Paula’s Post #10

But I liked the book so much better than the movie!


How often have we heard these words? How often have we turned to a friend, a spouse, a relative or colleague and admitted that we really liked the book ever so much more than the movie?

Maybe I should set the scene:

The credits roll, you shuffle your way up the aisle and search for the trash receptacle to jettison all that remains of something north of thirty bucks shelled out for two tickets, a couple of jumbo sized drinks and a tub of popcorn. The line up to the women’s restroom snakes out the door and you calculate the odds of arriving home in comfort without first making a visit to the inner sanctum.

You leave feeling flat, dissatisfied or even angry by Hollywood’s interpretation of your favourite book.

You’ve been left wanting.

Maybe the producers have changed the book in some way. Created some bizarre plot twist pulled from who knows where but certainly not from the pages of the novel we read. Certainly not from the pages of the novel we loved.

Seeing a character we’ve loved and rooted for transformed into something so far removed from the person you imagined is disturbing.

But why? Both are just ‘fiction’ after all. A bit of nonsense conjured out of nowhere by the storyteller.

Then why are we so disturbed?

In my humble opinion, the answer lies in the experience of reading. When we read a book, we crawl into the skin of a character and see the world through that character’s eyes. We live, if only for three or four hundred pages, a life so very different from our own.

In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936, the characters came so vividly to life for Ms. Mitchell’s many readers, the topic of who should play Scarlett and Rhett overtook baseball as America’s favourite pastime.

In 1936, legendary producer David O. Selznick acquired the film rights for $50,000, (at the time, an unprecedented sum, particularly as he acquired the rights just months after the book’s initial publication, long before the commercial potential of the novel was fully appreciated).

But Selznick’s foresight paid off when in 1937, the book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and became a best seller, with an initial 1.5 million copies sold. (Flash forward to the present and the sales figures skyrocket to an astounding 30 million copies).

By the time the film production was announced, readers of Ms. Mitchell’s novel were clamouring to have their favourite actors and actresses cast in the film. Selznick, of course, worried most about Scarlett and Rhett, Ms. Mitchell’s vivid, memorable lead characters.

Who would play Scarlett?

Who would play Rhett?

Selznick’s company, as an independent entity, generally ‘borrowed’ actors under contract to other major studios.

For his part, Selznick’s first choice for Rhett was the very popular Gary Cooper, while Warner Bros. offered up Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland and Bette Davis as a package deal, mounting a strong campaign to have Bette Davis play Scarlett.

But the public had other ideas, and eventually Selznick agreed that Clark Gable, then Hollywood’s number one box office draw, was the only possible choice for Rhett. Selznick needed both Gable and MGM’s financial backing and in return for the loan of Gable, Louis B. Mayer demanded a piece of the film, securing half of the profits in exchange for covering half the production budget and lending out Gable to Selznick.

But what about Scarlett?

That was the question everyone was talking about. Selznick announced a nationwide search, seeking a young unknown to play the role of Scarlett (who, you might recall, was just 16 in the novel’s opening chapters). Months of scouring women’s colleges and amateur theatrical societies failed to locate Selznick’s vision for Scarlett. Reluctantly, he again turned to the dozen’s of established actresses fighting for the role of a lifetime, including then 36-year-old Tallulah Bankhead, (a bona fide Southerner from Huntsville Alabama), whom Selznick considered too old and who apparently did not photograph well in ‘Technicolor’. Katharine Hepburn made an appointment with Selznick and ‘demanded’ she be cast in the role, (Selznick apparently told her he could not picture Rhett Butler chasing her for 12 years, all over the south), even Lucille Ball fell under consideration.

But in the end, Selznick chose Vivien Leigh. Almost every film buff has heard the legendary story of how Ms. Leigh, the great Laurence Olivier’s young fiancee won over Selznick when he observed the young Englishwoman, a guest of his brother Myron, during the backlot ‘burning of Atlanta scenes’. But when Selznick eventually announced his choice, the public greeted her selection with dismay, convinced she was ‘too English’ to play Scarlett.

Eventually, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett went on to earn the admiration of readers and filmgoers alike. Not so poor Leslie Howard, cast as long suffering Ashley Wilkes. Badgered into a role Howard had no desire to play, he felt that at 45, he was a too long in the tooth to play the romantic obsession of sixteen year old Scarlett. “I hate the damn part,” he famously complained, but Selznick was adamant on casting the middle aged Londoner as a 21 year old Georgian gentleman.

Why is this all so important? What does this have to do with writing.


We writers sit alone in our rooms, writing. Characters are created, sometimes from our imagination, sometimes the fictionalized reincarnation of someone we know or have known. Sometimes our characters are semi-autobiographical, sometimes complete figments of our imagination. But to us, they often become, well, real. And in a very good book, real to the reader as well.

They live, they breathe, they speak. Anyone who has written fiction will know the strange sensation of having one’s character ‘hijack’ the dialogue. Our characters can and do blurt out the most outrageous things. Lines we were never conscious of thinking, but words that  instead seem to spring from the mouths of the characters we have created.

My point is that memorable characters live not only on the pages we write, but in the minds of our readers. Our readers see our characters, our readers feel their emotions and experience their struggles. And very often, they picture exactly what the character looks like in real life.

If we’ve done it right, we’ve made them care.

If you doubt how ‘memorable’ a character can be, picture Ronald Reagan as aloof, world weary anti-hero, Rick Blaine in Casablanca. Laughable, isn’t it? But legend has it he almost got the part.

So, my ‘post of the week’ is a plea for all of us to work hard on our characters, to make our characters matter, to make our readers care.

I’d love to see some comments from our followers with examples of films where they felt Hollywood got it right: maybe Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the 2009 Swedish version of The Gril with The Dragon Tattoo:


And how about, just for fun, where they think Hollywood got it wrong. Okay, I admit the film isn’t even out yet, and the trailers are apparently pretty good, but did anyone really picture diminutive Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s iconic iconic, 6’5 anti-hero? Lee Child has more than 60 million copies of his novels in print, so we can predict a huge number of film-goers will weigh-in  on this one, starting with my 5writers colleague Joe, and our founder and still honorary member of our critique group, Sean Slater.

Let’s hear from you!

Oh, and a little show and tell about my progress to date:

Pie’s eaten this week: 0 – (just don’t ask about cheeseburgers or fish tacos).

Pages Written to Date: 41

Target Page Count: 400

Pages Short of Target: 359

Word Count: 11,358

Target Word Count: 100,000

Words short of Target: 88,642

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?