Epiphany Part 1 arrived in my living room as my husband griped at another Turner Classic Movie marathon Friday night.
“But it’s Katharine Hepburn!” I balked. “One of the greatest character actors ever!”
I’m addicted to old movies. Black and whites make me swoon and don’t even get me started on Technicolor.
My husband merely shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you like these when it takes an act of God to get you to the theater for a new release.”
“Because these aren’t movies about surly Teddy bears or Tom Cruise sprinting from danger again,” I argued. “These are mini-time capsules. From the costumes and scenery to the plotlines and cultural messages— I’m gathering history details. Educational entertainment!”
And the second I said it, I realized, yes, that’s exactly it. It’s the same in my reading and writing. Not only am I a historical fiction devotee, but I also advocate for the past teaching us something in the present. My preference is for stories that make me think back about how it was, as a catalyst to change how it is. It’s why I write contemporary-historical dual narratives like my latest release The Mapmaker’s Children. I appreciate being entertained and educated without the didacticism of a classroom. I like feeling my time has been well invested in things that enrich my perspective and enable me to speak intelligently on a topic I may not have known prior.
This is why I yawn through Will Ferrell movies, despite liking him as an actor. And why I smuggle Venti Starbucks cups into the theater to make it through the latest Marvel Comics action-adventure. I need art to work a little harder than that for me to truly enjoy the experience. I know, I’m an awful demanding patron.
My imagination is much like my stomach. Everything I put into it influences its state of being. It craves hearty nutrition and aches at too much sugar. It has violent, allergic reactions to certain fare and appreciates recipes with a long tradition of excellence. Simply stated: I am what I put in me. And I prefer to put in Little Women with Katharine Hepburn.
Epiphany Part 2. While watching above mentioned classic film on my couch, I was multitasking: working on a requested playlist of songs related to The Mapmaker’s Children for a blog. I was struggling on compiling contemporary songs (i.e. I just kept humming “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”). I don’t listen to music while I write. I’m one of those “black hole” writers. No music, no phones, no sound. So I can hear every heartbeat of my characters, every note they want to sing.
However, I realized then that something else had become a staple of my creative process: watching old films at night when my brain was too tired to wordsmith anymore. They are my soundtracks—my quasi-playlist of inspiration. In a snap, I had list of movies I watched multiple times over the three years of writing The Mapmaker’s Children. Without being conscious of it, I’d studied these films: the backdrops, the character portrayals, the cultural attitudes they sought to evoke, and the ones that permeated with and without intention. Even in my down time, I was information sponging.
Since the blog specifically requested songs, I thought I’d share my classic film-track for The Mapmaker’s Children with you, Unboxed Writer friends. I’m listing them by year because it’s impossible for me to order by preference. All are outstanding movies that I highly recommend.
1) The Littlest Rebel (1935)
Signature Shirley Temple. I grew up loving all her films. It’s because of her that I donned my first set of tap shoes and didn’t mind that I had a Rambutan hairstyle for much of my childhood. This is Shirley’s nod to the Civil War. She sits on Abe Lincoln’s lap while he comforts her on her Confederate “Di-ddy’s” plight. Just give in to the sweetness. It’s Shirley.
2) Gone With the Wind (1939)
We’ve got southern belles, plantation soirees, Scarlett O’Hara napping in bloomers, the Civil War, Rhett Butler, contraband smuggling, Reconstruction, and old slave songs playing in the intermission. It’s a historical fiction feast—in Technicolor! I’d even go so far as to argue that not watching this film is darn near un-American
Errol Flynn is stationed in the Kansas Territory during John Brown’s bloody crusade against slavery and falls in love with the railroad man’s daughter Olivia de Havilland. Ronald Regan (yes, our 40th president!) plays George Custer. It’s a winner.
4) Little Women (1949)
Who doesn’t love this one? Particularly when it’s cast with June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O’Brien as Beth, and Mary Astor as Marmee. Hello, silver screen legends. So brilliantly perfect for a novel that is epic Americana. There have been a lot of renditions of this book, including a forthcoming one from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sarah Polley, but I always return to this adaptation.
5) Seven Angry Men (1955)
Now this was the shiny nugget in my panning for historical gold. The film depicts John Brown and his family from their time in Kansas to Harper’s Ferry. Made in 1955, it presented Brown’s abolitionist cause in the context of a yet-to-be-accomplished battle for equal rights in the United States. The Supreme Court had just ruled segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, and Rosa Parks was about to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. The nation was on the verge of coming face-to-face with the mighty Martin Luther King, Jr. and this film was in the theaters— echoing history to the contemporary world. Which, as all who’ve read The Mapmaker’s Children know, makes me stand up and cheer.
6) Raintree County (1957)
Montgomery Cliff is an abolitionist idealist in Civil War Indiana and Georgia. There’s a love triangle between him, Eva Marie Saint, and Elizabeth Taylor. (Hello, what’s a man to do—two goddesses.) But more significant is the triangle between him and the fundamental belief systems of each of these women: Saint being his youthful sweetheart who shares his ideas, and Taylor being the seductress of southern slaving ways. The ending is as dramatic as the passionate conflict between North and South.
You know, this would make for a great book club film night for The Mapmaker’s Children. If any of you do this, I do not want to miss out. I’ll Skype in to kick off the evening’s festivities. Seriously.
What about you? Do films inspire your work? Music?