Hollywood Vs. History

Hollywood Vs. History

In my role as Science Center director some years ago, my staff and I were tasked with developing a high-tech exhibition on smoking. Rather, a powerful way to demonstrate the dangers of smoking on the human body. In my research, I came across myriad  forms of propaganda about smoking through advertising, first in magazines and newspapers, later on radio and television. One of the more prevalent means of marketing “smoking,” however, began in the thirties and forties (and continues today) in the movies.

Hollywood has always glamorized smoking (think Humphrey Bogart or James Dean) and, no doubt, perpetuated the myth that smoking was cool. As I dug deeper into this phenomenon, I found that Hollywood was very reluctant to cut smoking out of their movies, long after they knew the dangers. For one thing, cigarette companies paid the studios to “show” their product. (You’d see a pack of Marlboro on a side table.) For another, they felt it added to the glamor of the characters. Note: On-screen smoking in PG-13 films has doubled since 2010.

Hollywood has done us a disservice by minimizing or ignoring the dangers of smoking by displaying it in the movies. Making the practice “all right.” But what about history? As I watch the stories in the news about the tearing down of monuments, statues, and flags, I wondered about this very thing. What role does Hollywood play?

I wrote a novel about the Civil War. (Aha! Fiction writers may share the blame with Hollywood in perpetuating historical inaccuracies. A blog for another time.) In my research, I read fiction, non-fiction and, of course, indulged in movies about the subject. The Ken Burns series and book, The Civil War, epitomizes to me the true story, with accurate narrative and real photographs.

Armed with my research, I could watch Gone With the Wind and recognize the many inaccuracies of the film. But then there was the movie, Gettysburg. Reasonably accurate, I did notice one thing that stood out. The southern characters like Generals James Longstreet, Lewis Armistead, and Robert E. Lee were made very sympathetic and likeable. (Although I had my misgivings about General George Pickett. I didn’t like the actor!)

The point here is that when Hollywood displays characters as sympathetic, eloquent gentlemen, it is hard for the viewer to make the connection to historical treachery. Let’s not forget, these generals were committing treason. They fought against the union to preserve their way of life, a life that defended and preserved the practice of slavery.

Perhaps it would do writers well to think about the consequences of their portrayals of characters and events in their books and scripts. Are we doing a disservice to future generations by changing history for dramatic effect?

Creative Ways to Murder

Creative Ways to Murder

Mystery writers have a tough decision: how to kill their fictional victims.  There are far too many ways to murder to mention here.  (If you want unusual methods, watch Criminal Minds or Supernatural.)  I’ll mention one way that was based on a sad but true story.

One of the more gruesome aspects to my research for The Triangle Murders was learning about defenestration.  This nasty means of murder is the act of throwing someone out the window or from a high place.  The term comes from two centuries-old incidents in Prague. The first in 1419 when seven town officials were thrown from the Town Hall, no doubt precipitating the Hussite War. The second in 1618, when two Imperial governors and their secretary were thrown from Prague Castle, sparking the Thirty Years War. The latter was referred to as the Defenestration of Prague.

Now, while there’s something appealing about throwing political officials out of the window, remember that when they hit the ground the results are quite grim.

Falling as a cause of death can be very effective. There are two ways a person can fall.  A vertical “controlled” fall is when the person lands upright and feet-first. An “uncontrolled” fall is when some other part of the body hits the ground first ie: head or back.  Not pretty.

The vertical fall is survivable up to about 100 feet, but an uncontrolled fall can be fatal at very short distances such as from a stepladder. With a controlled fall, the initial energy transmits through the feet and legs and spares vital organs. The uncontrolled fall, however, can cause massive internal and head injuries.

146 people, mostly young women, died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York City, on March 25, 1911.  Many chose jumping out the ninth-story windows to escape the raging fire.  Safety nets were ineffective and bodies crashed right through them.  Strictly speaking, defenestration was not the cause of death because they were not pushed out the windows.  However, the result was the same.  Death by impact on a hard surface.

Unrecognizable bodies lay on the sidewalk along Greene Street, together with hoses, fire rescue nets, and part of a wagon. All were drenched by the tons of water used to contain and extinguish the fire. Photographer: Brown Brothers, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of Kheel Center, Cornell University, http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/trianglefire/

 I use defenestration as the actual cause of death in another book Pure Lies.  It’s a clean way to murder (no blood on your hands) and allows easy escape for the killer.  There is the problem, however, of actually shoving someone who might be bigger and heavier than you out the window.

But that’s a story for another blog.  Ideas welcome.

Re-Imagining History

Re-Imagining History

Writing historical mysteries is a juggling act.  Writers must create a fictional plot with fictional characters around a historical time period with real people. . . and somehow suspend the readers’ disbelief.

Many writers of historical fiction choose a particular time period and stay with it.  I’m thinking Anne Perry, Phillipa Gregory, Charles Todd.  I, on the other hand, am intrigued by so many time periods, I skip around.  Each of my mysteries takes place in a different place and time, which enables me to do the thing I love most: research.   The risk, of course, is that I will know only a little about each time period as opposed to Anne Perry who knows a great deal about Victorian England.

Once I settle on a time period, I read and read and read about it.  I visit the places in question, interview experts, historians, and read and read and read some more.  By this time, I usually have a kernel of an idea for the plot and maybe even a character sketch or two.

Building fictional characters around authentic ones is key.  Unless your character is transported from modern times to the past, he/she must act, speak, dress like the time period.  In using real people from the time period, they must be as genuine to history as I can make them.

As the story develops and takes twists and turns on its own, I find I am bending the truth a bit–creating an “alternate history.”  This is fiction, after all.  For instance, my fifth book, Time Lapse, is a totally new take on the Jack the Ripper murders.  Some think it’s an outlandish scenario, completely out of the realm of possibility, but since there have been hundreds of theories and books written on this serial killer, why not one more? The backdrop and many characters are authentic, but the story line meanders considerably from what we know to be historically accurate.  Still, Jack has never been caught.  What if my resolution is. . .  never mind.

In fact, the questions I ask take the form of “what if” and I let my imagination run free.  It’s a rare writer that can devise a plot line that hasn’t already been done.  But even a clichéd plot can be made new and fresh with unusual twists, powerful characters and exceptional prose.

As I put the final touches on this fifth novel, I realize I am bending history to fit the story.  That’s the advantage of fiction.  And its strength.

History Keeps Unfolding

History Keeps Unfolding

This is a re-post of a blog from earlier days.  There never seems to be a wane in the interest of missing WWII art and even today, art and artifacts are being returned to their rightful owners. The blog:

The most amazing thing just happened.  My latest book, Deadly Provenance, recently went online.  It’s a fictional story of the Nazi looting of art during WWII, set against the backdrop of an authentic historical drama that is still unfolding today.  That’s not the amazing part.

Alfred Rosenberg in Berlin

A central “character” in the book is the ERR or Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the Third Reich’s bureau, if you will, tasked with confiscating the precious art of Europe from “undesirables.” It was led by Alfred Rosenberg, fanatical henchman and confidante of Hitler, who also played a major role in the extermination of millions of Jews.  So why is this amazing?

The long lost diary of Rosenberg has just been recovered.  400 pages that are now at United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The diary is hand-written (that in itself is amazing!) and spans events from spring 1936 to winter 1944.  It could offer insight into many occurrences that remain unclear today.  For instance, there might be details about the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union, or such incidences as the flight of Rudolf Hess to Britain in 1941.

My personal hope is that the pages shed light on the missing art pieces.  Is it possible that in addition to formal ERR records of confiscated works, that perhaps Rosenberg mentioned some of these in the diary?

Still Life: Vase with Oleanders by Vincent van Gogh is one of those missing paintings and the one I focus on in my book.  Did Rosenberg happen to make note of it in his diary?  When he tried to steal it from a gallery in Paris but it had already been removed for safekeeping by the owners – the Bernheim Jeune family.  Did he mention that it was found again, or not, when the place of safekeeping, the Château de Rastignac near Bordeaux, was burned to the ground?

Where is the missing van Gogh?

According to Haaretz, a Jewish world newspaper, Rosenberg “. . . elicits a rare consensus among many World War II historians: the man, they say, was a pretentious fool.”  Besides being a monster of the highest order.  But now his diary may shed light on history, assuming words of a pretentious fool are to be believed, and that he said anything worthwhile, and did not blather on about inconsequential personal events in his life.

Which brings me back to the original premise.  Does history ever stop unfolding or are there always new discoveries and uncoveries that deny or confirm the facts as we know them?  Think about how your writing can reflect all the many possibilities.  Alternative histories or histories true to the last detail . . . until we find out otherwise.

For now, I’m hoping to read the text of Rosenberg’s diary when it becomes public.  Maybe there are clues within it to help me hunt down that van Gogh.  (See link: http://lynnekennedymysteries.com/the-hunt-for-the-missing-van-gogh/)

Oh.  Did I mention I was going to do that?

Beauty, History, and Misery in One Small Town

Beauty, History, and Misery in One Small Town

As part of the research for my next mystery, The Final Note, I visited Regensberg, Germany, a medieval town in the heart of Bavaria. Like my book, Deadly Provenance, about a Nazi-confiscated Van Gogh painting, the backdrop of this book is once again Nazi Germany, but instead of art theft, the theme is music. To set the stage, the following excerpt from The Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem, “Here Their Stories Will be Told . . .” gives you an overview of the Jewish situation beginning in 1933 in Regensberg.  What is significant is the reference to The Cultural Federation of German Jews, musicians, in this case, who feature prominently in The Final Note.

The images I included were taken by me in Regensberg just last week.  They depict the first new synagogue in 80 years, which just opened, a plaque placed in a wall stolen from the Jewish cemetery, and “stumbling” stones embedded in cobblestones – a memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.  Here is the grim history.

“In 1933, there were 427 Jews in Regensburg, out of a total population of 81,106. Branches of many Jewish organizations were active in the community:  the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Central Verein), Jewish Assistance (Jüdischen Hilfsverein), the Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund Jüdischer Frontsoldaten), the Jewish History and Literature Association and many Zionist organizations. The Cultural Federation of German Jews (Jüdischer Kulturbund), which had some 200 members, organized performances and concerts featuring Jewish artists invited to the city. The Jewish youth had the choice of the Ultra-orthodox Ezra movement, the Association of Jewish Youth (Jüdischer Jugendverein) and the Maccabi Zionist sports association.

The community maintained a synagogue, several other religious institutions, a school that was operative until 1937 and a public library. A number of charitable, welfare and cultural organizations were active in the community, including an organization supporting the school, an organization for the development of social and cultural life in the community and a loan fund that also maintained activity until 1937. There was a hevra kaddisha (burial society) – the first for the general public, the second for women only, the later was also responsible for arranging the hospitalization of poor children and assistance for impoverished Jews recovering from illness.  A charitable fund helped provide heating for poor families, and another fund helped new brides. Some of the children were taught religious studies by the community rabbi Magnus Weinberg. He retired in 1935 and was succeeded by Rabbi Dr. Felix Salomon.

Antisemitic incitement against the city’s Jews began when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1934 a Jewish trader was arrested on suspicion of murdering a Christian boy; the Nazi press in Regensburg accused the Jews of murder, but the trader was released when the perpetrators were discovered to be Christian. An economic boycott was also imposed on the Jews. Jews in the marketplace – traders and suppliers – were attacked and their wares were destroyed. In 1934, the Jewish pupils were evicted from the city high schools. After the publication of the Nuremberg Laws, the Jews’ financial situation declined. The Nazis ordered hotel and restaurant owners not to serve Jews.In response to this antisemitic pressure, many Jews joined the local Zionist movement, and the community began to help traders who had been affected by the economic boycott as well as who wished to emigrate. This assistance included loans, foreign language courses and professional training courses. The local branch of the Histadrut Hatzionit ran Hebrew language classes. In 1936, with the consent of the Gestapo, a Beit Halutz (pioneer club) was opened in Regensburg to prepare the youth for immigration to Eretz Israel, but in December 1938, the Gestapo shut it down.

By 1938, 268 Jews had left Regensburg, more than half of them fleeing Germany entirely. As a result of this emigration, many senior citizens were left without support; the community initiated a “Winter Assistance” campaign (Winterhilfe) with the help of the Association of Jewish Women in Bavaria, and in the same year a senior citizens’ home was opened. In 1938, before Kristallnacht, a Jew was imprisoned on the charge of “racial desecration,” and the glass storefronts of Jewish shops were smashed. Thirteen Jews from Regensburg were deported in the Zbaszyn deportation of October 1938, but in January 1939 an agreement was reached between Poland and Germany, and the deportees from Regensburg were permitted to return home.

During the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, local Nazis destroyed the property in the Synagogue and the community center and burned them down. Jewish homes and stores were destroyed, as well as their belongings and wares.  Some 220 Jews, including women and children, were arrested and held at the local police station. Dozens were publicly humiliated and some were sent to the Dachau concentration camp. Members of the Nazi party broke into and looted their apartments. Rabbi Salomon and his wife were forced out of their apartment and ordered to stand outside in their nightwear while their home was being demolished by Nazi thugs. A 66-year-old Jewish trader was beaten to death on arrest.

The Jews being held were released after agreeing to leave Germany. Rabbi Salomon immigrated to England in July 1939 but was killed about a year later in the Blitz.By 1939, all the traders’ and businessmen’s property had been transferred to Christians as part of the “Aryanization” process. Persecution and imprisonment of Jews continued after Kristallnacht.”

Sadly, you know the rest.

 

 

 

Bringing History to Life Through Fiction

Bringing History to Life Through Fiction

One hundred and fifty six years ago this July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.

I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure.  I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top.  The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene.  But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.

I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly.  All other characters and events are real history.  This letter might well have been written at the time.

July 3, 1863

My Dearest Sara,

I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed.  I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended.  But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.

Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured.  The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg.  Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated.  Finally, victory, and an important one.

It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes.  There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes.  Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.

I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm.  But don’t worry.  The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain.  Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.

I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields.  The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet.  I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.

The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace.  I rely on my apprentice more.  I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people.  Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains.  I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.

Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days.  I look forward to working with them.

Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera.  Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived.  Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves.  Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only:  “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.”   It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.

On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric.  There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end.  But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle.  Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded.  I doubt this town will ever be the same.

Tomorrow is July 4.  I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.

I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.

Yours ever truly,

Joseph

 While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive.  Also, please note, the gentleman with the camera above is Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, not Joseph Thornhill.