Monday, December 12, 2011

The Real Laura Ingersoll Secord

The book is finished. I've written the beginning, the mid-section, and the end. I've completed the bibliography, the chronology, the prologue, and the epilogue. Now, it is "jelling."

I turn my mind to Christmas preparations -- hang the wreath on the front door, start the gift shopping, and plan the menus.

The "jelling" period is, for me, as vital as any other part of the process of writing a book. It is now that I see the project as a whole. Now while I have the time, I think of what I learned about Laura Secord, and how she started becoming a real person to me.

She was just an ordinary housewife living in pre-Confederation Canada. She gave birth to seven babies -- at home -- her last when she was forty-two. Sources tell me that Laura Secord also"did needlework," but obviously that went beyond embroidery because she also sewed clothing for her family.

Long after she died, an elderly man recounted how he used to shovel snow at Laura's house in Chippawa when he was just a boy. His family was very poor, he said, and Laura knit him the first pair of mittens he ever owned.

I imagine her standing at her window, watching the boy clear the snow from the walk to front door. Perhaps she sees him stop and blow on his cold, red hands before he takes up the shovel again. I think it was that act of knitting mittens for that boy, more than any other event I read about, that made me see Laura as she really was. Someone I wanted to know.
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Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Book for Christmas

It's not likely that you have someone on your gift list who can remember the days of silent movies. But if you know someone who is a movie buff -- especially old movies --  or someone who loves to read about celebs (and Mary Pickford was the first movie superstar!) then I recommend my latest book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.

Of course, there lots more to Mary's story than just the movies. She began her career at the age of eight, on the stage of the Princess Theatre in Toronto where she was born. Determined to provide for her fatherless family, she spent years barnstorming, riding the rails from one town to the next, until she landed, finally, in a Broadway production.

She and her second husband, the dashing Douglas Fairbanks, became Hollywood Royalty, and their magnificent home in Beverly Hills, dubbed "Pickfair," was the centre of Hollywood society.

But the story of the most important woman in the history of film-making also has its share of laughter and tears. Mary was, after all, only human. You might even want to read her story yourself!

The good news is, there's still time to order it in time for Christmas. If you can't find it on the bookstore shelves, it can be ordered online. says that if you order it today, you'll have it as early as December 5th. Check it out!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Laura Secord Country

Laura Secord's House in Queenston 
This is a familiar scene to anyone on the trail of Laura Secord. She and James and their family moved here in 1803, shortly after their third daughter, Harriet, was born. They'd lived in St. Davids for the first few years of their marriage.

The Secords lived in the Queenston house until 1835 when Laura and James moved to Chippawa. The Laura Secord Candy Co. bought the house in 1969 and after restoring it, donated it to the Niagara Parks Commission. The NPC maintains the homestead as a tourist attraction. During the War of 1812 Bicentennial celebrations in 2012-2014, this will be the scene of numerous events.

Scene of the Niagara River from Queenston Heights
The first thing I wanted to do after arriving in Queenston early in November was to take the short drive (four miles) to St. Davids. I wanted to see where Laura went on the first leg of her walk. She left her house before dawn on June 22, 1813 to walk to Beaver Dams and warn the British of the Americans' plan of attack. She apparently took "a circuitous route" to St. Davids, wanting to avoid any American sentries on the road. I could imagine her staying down where the land is low, below the escarpment. 

Also at Queenston, where we saw Mackenzie's Printery, we toured the park atop the Niagara Escarpment, Queenston Heights, and saw Brock's Monument as well as the one to Laura Secord. I was amazed at the height of the escarpment which Laura had to climb in order to find her husband, James, who had been seriously wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812. That was no small feat.

Sculpture of British General Drummond at site of Battle of Lundy's Lane   
The second day of our tour we visited Lundy's Lane where the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812 was fought, and where both Laura and James are buried in the Drummond Hill Cemetery.

 After a picturesque drive along the Niagara River, we arrived in Chippawa, the village that became the Secords' last home. James was the customs collector here from 1835 until his death in 1841. The lived in the Customs House, but later Laura bought a small house on Bridgewater Street, now a private residence. She died at home in 1868, a grand old lady of ninety-three.

I'll tell you the whole story in Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812. Look for it in stores in June, 2012!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tracking Laura Secord

View across the Niagara River from Niagara-on-the-Lake
Last week we were in the Niagara peninsula, on the trail of Laura Secord, the subject of the biography I am working on. I wanted to spend some time in the locales that would have been familiar to her, to soak up some of the atmosphere. I believe it worked: I do feel as if I know her a little better.

Display case at the Niagara Historical Society Museum
We arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake on an almost summer-like afternoon. The trees that lined the streets were shedding leaves the colour of gold, and one could smell the oak as we walked along the sidewalks.
At the wonderful Niagara Historical Society Museum in the town I found a display of some of Laura's personal possessions: a copper kettle where she is said to have hidden some doubloons from the Americans, a coverlet, handmade by Laura and her granddaughter, a small trunk, some teaspoons, some sugar tongs, and other small items.

This museum also has an extensive collection of artifacts from the War of 1812, and since that was the backdrop for much of Laura's story, I found it most interesting.

I was delighted to find in one alcove in the museum a sculpted bust of Laura, a smaller version of the one that sits atop her monument in the cemetery in Lundy's Lane.
Bust of Laura Secord by Mildred Peel

Because we arrived on a week day, historic Fort George was not open this time of year, but we did stroll around the property and take a few pictures. All along the scenic Niagara Parkway people were walking, cycling, and basking in the early November sunshine.
Fort George, Niagara-on-the-Lake

Now, onward up the river to Queenston. Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pictures from Book Launch

Here are a few pictures (in no particular order) taken at the launch of my latest book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart. 

My cousin and two of my three sisters came to congratulate me after the launch. It was great to see them.
After viewing one of Mary Pickford's silent movies, The New York Hat, the crowd heads to the refreshment table and the line-up along the far wall where they wait for me to autograph their books.

 This is me, reading one of the sections I chose from the book. I was thrilled at the size of the turnout, and sorry for those who ended up having to stand. Thank you to everyone who came to show their support, and to the Quinte West Public Library (Trenton) for hosting the event. Book sales were handled by Kathy Collins from J&B Books in Trenton.

The book is available from your favourite book store. If you don't see it on the shelf, they're happy to order it for you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Launch Success

Mary Pickford, Canada's Golden Girl
On Saturday, November 5 at the Trenton Library we launched Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart in fine style. I couldn't have asked for a better turnout.
We had expected about twenty-five (with my fingers crossed!), and we easily doubled that number, having to set up extra chairs. In the end, it was standing room only. Obviously, Mary Pickford still draws a crowd!

This is the way the program went. After a brief introduction I read several short selections from the book, tossing in a bit of necessary detail in order to link the pieces. A few questions and a bit of discussion followed.

Afterwards we showed The New York Hat, one of Mary's short silent films, available now on YouTube. It proved to be a big hit, with plenty of chuckles over the rather predictable plot. It is, after all, almost 100 years old. The film is considered to be one of Mary's best shorts, and was the last one she made for Biograph. It proved to be a good example of Mary's acting style, the way she used subtle, natural body movements.

The library generously provided the crowd some light refreshments while they stayed to chat, and I was kept busy autographing books and smiling for the camera. 

So, the book is now officially launched! Go, Mary!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Human Library Project

Posted by PicasaA view of my nook in the Colborne Public Library where I was a Human Book this past weekend.

  Call it a Human Book or a Human Library, these programs are popping up in libraries across the country. The event I was participating in was hosted by the Colborne Public Library and the Spirit of the Hills Art Association to celebrate "October is Arts Month" in Northumberland County and Canadian Public Library Month. 

In most cases a Human Library presents the public with the opportunity to consult, for one half hour, people who are of different ethnic backgrounds, who work at unusual occupations, who live on the edge of society, or who are simply interesting people with a life story to tell. 

At the event last weekend, we were all engaged in creative work. There was a children's book illustrator, a sculptor, an artist, a man who specialized in Chinese calligraphy, a photographer, and a writer. We each had a corner of the library where we could set up the tools of our trade and where visitors could come and ask us questions.   

So what did the patrons who consulted me ask? Which of the books in my display was my first? How do I submit a manuscript? What drew me to write Ivy's story (Growing Up Ivy)? Do I have any input when it comes to the cover art? What can you tell me about the importance of editing? And it was inevitable: what do you think about e-books?

This event was a first for Colborne library. I've since heard that all the participants enjoyed the experience. There are a few kinks to be ironed out, but everyone is willing to take part next year.

Write on!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One Day in the Life of a Writer

Early in the morning my writing day seems full of promise. I will accomplish a lot this day because there are no scheduled interruptions -- no meetings, no appointments, no luncheons (as pleasant as that might be).

I will write 1000 words, email some updates to a couple of associations where I have a web page, send out more invitations for my upcoming launch of the new book, prepare some advertising posters, and do final revisions on the first two chapters of the next book.

A good plan. But, mid-morning, when I turn on the computer to re-read the biography of William Lyon MacKenzie that I need for the present writing project, I get distracted. I read my email, reply to those that need some response, forward a couple of emails that make me laugh, and take a look at what's going on with Facebook while I'm there.

So, how did I do, overall? I managed to write more words than I planned, I looked after most of the updates, emailed more invitations. But in order to do that I had to phone a couple of friends for email addresses and we got talking . . .

Another brand new day. This morning I finished those revisions on the first two chapters. And here's that blog post I promised. Now I need to plan for what I want to accomplish today. It's good to have a plan.

Such is life. For this writer, anyway.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The War of 1812 on Video

The War of 1812 provided much of the background for writing the life of Laura Secord. As my research for the book continues, I know I'm going to enjoy watching this PBS video that will be on television on Monday night.  From what I've seen of the previews, it should be very interesting. Click the link above to see a short clip. We can never know too much Canadian history.

Be sure to watch for Laura Secord in the movie! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Focussing on Your Characters

I recently shared with the members of the writers' group I belong to an article I'd read in the United Church Observer (September, 2011), an interview with theologian Marcus Borg, author of several books of popular theology. He's just written his first novel, "Putting Away Childish Things," and the interviewer was asking Borg how he found the new experience of writing fiction.

Borg admitted that for a long time writing the novel was a struggle. He found he couldn't get past the first few chapters because he didn't know what the plot was. I can relate to that.

After putting the novel aside for ten years, he decided to try a different approach: he'd start by focussing on the characters. He wrote a page about each one, who they were, where they were, what they liked, etc. Then he put them in a setting to see what would happen. "It was the breaking of an ice jam," Borg said, "and I finished the book in eight months."

He likens writing non-fiction, his usual field, to carpentry work. You know the sequence of the subject matter, and you know what topics you'll cover in each chapter. Then you just fit it all together.

I agree with what he has to say. By focussing on the characters in your fiction you know how each one will react in whatever situation he finds himself. You don't have to think about plot; the characters will help that to unfold. Then you can go back and make sure that it moves along as it should.

Write on!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with Defining Canada

The books have arrived! Soon they will be on the way to a bookstore near you. I hope you'll look for them.

Last week I was interviewed for Dundurn Press's Defining Canada about the writing of the book. Here is the link to that interview:

I hope you will enjoy reading my responses to the interviewer's questions. Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart will be on the shelves in your favourite bookstore very soon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Yours till Niagara Falls"

Can you remember when autograph books were all the rage? Those smallish books filled with the invitation of blank pages? We were in public school, likely grades 5 to 8, when collecting the autographs of all your friends was popular. The little books proliferated near the end of every school year.

You didn't just sign your name, either. You tried to come up with a little poem or bit of nonsense verse to go along with it:

"Yours till the butter flies."

"If by chance this book should roam, just box its ears and send it home."

 At one time, my mother showed me her high school or teachers' college autograph book. Some of the entries there were quite philosophical:

"The road of life lies before you
Like a path of driven snow.
Be careful how you tread it
'Cos every step will show."

What struck me most about the autographs in my mother's book was the beautiful handwriting.

By the time we got to high school, autograph books seem to have disappeared. Maybe the school year books took their place.

What got me thinking about all of this was how often I wish I could come up with something original to sign, besides my name, at a book signing. There often isn't time to ponder what to write, but when there is, why can't I be clever? Or is "best wishes" enough? 

Monday, September 5, 2011

Making History Interesting

Happy Labour Day! Tomorrow all the students will be going back to school. This always seems a better time for New Year's than January 1st. Time for new beginnings and for making resolutions. A few years back I used to resolve to make writing a priority in my day. Then, lo and behold, it happened!

I now write an average of eight hours a day, largely because I'm under contract for two biographies, with only six months to deliver each one. Laura Secord is proving to take many more hours to write than Mary Pickford did. There's so much history to research. Laura was born during the American Revolution, and her feat of heroism took place during the War of 1812. I used to love history back in my student days.

What am I saying! I'm still a student, learning something new every day.

For instance, did you know that in February 1813, during the War of 1812-14, two hundred American soldiers and some volunteers crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River from Ogdensberg, N.Y. and freed a group of American citizens held in the Brockville jail. Before they fled back across the ice, they seized arms, supplies, and forty-five of Brockville's most prominent citizens.

The good news is that those prominent citizens were soon set free, but it conjures up some interesting pictures in my mind. Were those people snug in their beds when the Americans came calling? Or in formal dress attending a fancy event? They definitely were not planning on a stroll in the dark across the frozen St. Lawrence.

That is the kind of tidbit that makes history come alive for me!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Bringing Laura to Life

What a relief to discover, as I begin the writing of Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812, that Laura is starting to come to life for me. I need that to happen in order to make her real for my readers. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to breathe life into her old bones.

As I write I imagine her as a child, growing up in war-torn Massachusetts during the American War of Independence. She waits at the front window for her father, a member of the state militia. I see her as a teen beginning the long journey to Upper Canada with her family, helping with the younger ones, comforting her stepmother who is expecting another baby.

Now she is a slim, vivacious, 21-year-old, working in her father's tavern in Queenston when she meets and falls in love with James Secord. Today I saw her at  her wedding and imagined a lavish affair. Later she will go with James to begin married life in the little town of St. David's.

Behold, Laura lives!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cover Art for Laura Secord

This is the illustration that will appear on the cover of my latest project, a biography titled Laura Secord, Heroine of the War of 1812 (Dundurn Press, June 2012). The artist was Henry Sandham (1842–1910), a Canadian painter, photographer, and illustrator who was celebrated for his paintings and water colours of Canadian subjects.

I'm pleased that the publisher chose this piece of art from Library and Archives Canada for the cover. It's full of action and illustrates a pivotal scene in the book.

It also portrays a youthful Laura. She was only thirty-seven when she made her heroic walk in June, 1813. There appear to be no pictures of her in her younger years, and the best known pictures of Laura Secord show her as an old lady, near the end of her life, which I think is unfortunate.  I intend to bring her back to life as the vibrant, courageous, and ever resourceful young Laura.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Last Look

Last week I saw the manuscript of my book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart for the last time. I had one final look at the edited proofs, reading for typos and checking the placement of the illustrations and their captions. I'm very happy with it! Matt Baker, the copy-editor, made my writing look very good.

And that's it! It will now be scrutinized for a week by an in-house proof-reader at Dundurn Press, and then it's off to the printer. 

I  first accepted this project on September 21, 2010 -- and all going well -- one year and 48,000 words later it will be on the shelf at your local bookstore.

I hope you'll look for it and let me know what you think.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Next Project: The Life of Laura Secord

Now that I've signed the contract with the publisher for my next book, I can share the news. I am writing another biography in Dundurn Press's Quest Biography series. This one, to be released in June 2012, will be about Laura Secord, the only female heroine ever mentioned in the narratives of the War of 1812.

And no, she didn't start the candy company that goes by her name.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Blogging in Summer

For the first time in months I missed posting to this blog last week. Even through the long days of writing Mary Pickford's story, I posted a weekly entry.
But now that summer is here with a vengeance, with extraordinary heat, my energy has disappeared.

We've packed up and moved to the cottage for a few days. It's not a lot cooler out here, but there is usually a breeze to be found on one side of the cottage or the other. And when the temperature becomes unbearable we can refresh ourselves with a dip in the always-refreshing water of Lake Ontario.

There is no Internet access out here and I miss that. But that's no excuse not to work on my research notes or compose a few new blog posts.

Write on! And happy vacationing!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Reviewing the First Copy Edit

I have just finished my review of the first copy edit of Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart. Because I'm used to writing fiction, I was surprised by how thorough the editing was and how long it took to go over every point the editor made. It was not just a case of reading and accepting his better choice of phrase; there were numerous queries to reply to, points that needed to be clarified. By the time I sent it back, my notes filled seven pages.

Every manuscript can benefit from a professional editing, but in the case of non-fiction it's crucial. There were several spots where what I'd said was unclear. That comes from being so close to the project that you lose your objectivity. I was grateful for the opportunity to make the story a better one.

This was my last chance for any re-writing. The pages go to the design department next. There will be one last chance to review the final copy edit, to make sure we didn't miss any typos, but it will be too late to do any rewriting at that stage. Then it's off to the printer.  

Look for the book in September!

(The photo above is of my lilies last year, minus the red beetles that polished them off this summer!)

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A.K.A. Gladys Smith

Who was she?

She started life as Gladys Louise Smith. Born to poverty in Victorian Toronto, she made her stage debut in 1900 at the age of eight, determined to provide for her fatherless family.

After years of demoralizing road tours and out of economic necessity, she went to work in the fledgling motion picture business.
In 1920 she married actor Douglas Fairbanks, pictured here with her on their honeymoon voyage. Who was she?

She was Mary Pickford, actor, director, producer, and film executive, one of the founders of United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the most important woman in the history of motion pictures.

For the full story, look for my upcoming title,  Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, available in bookstores in September or for preordering now by clicking on the link, or by contacting the publisher at

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Allan Dwan, Silent Movie Director

Allan Dwan, born in Toronto, Canada, April 3, 1885 was another contempory of Mary Pickford. "Joseph Aloysious" Dwan moved with his family to the US when he was eleven. He attended the University of Notre Dame, studying engineering. He went to work for a lighting company in Chicago, and it was there that he developed an interest in the brand new motion picture business.

When Essanay Studio (Spoor and Anderson) offered Dwan a chance to come on board as a scriptwriter, he jumped at it. In 1911, he began working in Hollywood. A number of movie companies had relocated to the west coast in order to take advantage of a 360 days of sunshine per year.

Allan Dwan directed both Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in a number of their early pictures. He directed Pickford in A Girl of Yesterday in 1915, the film that made Mary the first actress ever to fly in a plane in a movie.

In 1922, Dwan directed Robin Hood, starring Douglas Fairbanks. In an interview the year before Allan Dwan died, he said of Fairbanks that the actor was athletic, "but not always smart." Once while Dwan was directing, Fairbanks insisted on leaping off a balcony onto a horse. Dwan told him that the idea was insanity. But Fairbanks did the leap -- and ended up in the hospital.

 Dwan admired Douglas Fairbanks Sr. According to the famed director, unlike Faribanks's son Doug Jr., who had a reputation as a ladies' man, Doug Sr. was "devoted to Mary." Well, for a few years anyway.

Allan Dwan died in Los Angeles in 1981, at the age of 96.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mary Pickford and the Nickelodeon, Part II

It was Mary's mother, Charlotte, who broached the subject of her eldest daughter applying for work at Biograph, the leading film company in New York in 1909. The Biograph studio was sending two reels of film every day to the exhibitors, and word had it that the company was paying five dollars a day for actors in their movies.

"Would you be very much against applying for work at the Biograph studio, Mary?"

Go into the movies? Mary was incredulous. How demeaning! She was a Belasco actress; the flickers were beneath her dignity.

But a job in moving pictures would mean the four members of the Pickford family could stay together in New York for the summer, and Charlotte wasn't long in pointing that out.

 Charlotte wasn't above a little bribery either. If Mary would agree to try her luck at Biograph, her mother would allow her to wear a pair of silk stockings for the first time. And a pair of high-heeled shoes.

Because she always did as Charlotte told her, Mary swallowed her pride. She dressed in her navy blue serge suit, striped shirtwaist, and a new, rolled brim straw hat, and boarded the streetcar to West 14th Street.

Mary had planned her route to the Biograph studio very carefully, in order to spend only one nickel on the cross-town trolley. Why waste precious money on such a pointless trip, anyway? She would step inside the hated studio, pay the call she'd promised her mother she would, and get out of there as quickly as she could.

The above is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart.
Look for it in bookstores in September, or preorder now, online.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mary Pickford and the Nickelodeon

Seventeen-year old Mary Pickford believed that nice people didn't go to nickelodeons. In 1909 there were thousands of these makeshift theatres in America, showing the latest rage -- motion pictures -- and they were often housed in converted storefronts, the plate glass windows covered over. Most stage actors like Mary, considered moving pictures, or "the flickers" as they were often called, beneath them.

 Nickelodeons were so called because the price of admission was usually a nickel. For that price, one might see three reels of motion picture film and an illustrated song. Tickets for a Broadway show or vaudeville were expensive, out of reach of most of the working poor. But nickelodeons were affordable.

Often located in downtown neighbourhoods, nickelodeons were potential fire traps, cramped and fetid, the seating a collection of rickety old chairs. A piano player or violinist would be seated at the front next to the screen (usually a white sheet hung up) to provide musical accompaniment to match the action in the silent film.

The stock stage companies of which Mary had been a part and which had provided her and her family with a living, shut down for the summer months because the theatres got too hot. But the voracious appetite for motion pictures created by the nickelodeons meant the film studios were busy year round.

And Mary Pickford was looking for work.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The King of Comedy

Mack Sennett, founder of Hollywood's Keystone Studio and hailed as the "King of Comedy," was another of Mary Pickford's contemporaries. Like Mary, Sennett was a Canadian. He was born January 17, 1880 in Danville, Quebec, the son of a blacksmith. The family moved to Connecticut when Mack was 17.

Although he originally hoped to become an opera singer, the story goes that it was meeting Marie Dressler, the Canadian-born star of vaudeville, that led him to New York in search of work on the stage. Dressler was appearing in The Lady Slavey in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1898 when Sennett told her he wanted to break into show biz. Marie Dressler wrote a note to David Belasco, famed Broadway producer, on Sennett's behalf.

After appearing in burlesque and vaudeville shows, Mack Sennett apprenticed at the Biograph studio in New York from 1908-1912. This was where he first met Mary Pickford. They were both appearing in the early silent movies directed by D. W. Griffith. Both Sennett and Mary were also writing screen stories and having friendly competitions with each other to sell their work to Griffith.

There's an amusing story in my soon-to-be-released book, Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, about how Mack wanted to put Mary's name on one of his scenarios because he thought Mary's writing was being accepted only on account of her long, blonde hair.

 Mack Sennett became a producer and director himself, founding the Keystone Studio where he became famous for his slapstick comedies, including the zany Keystone Cop series. During his career, Sennett directed most of the well-known comedians of the silent film era. He has to his credit more than 1000 silent movies as well as a number of talkies.  Sennett died in 1960, just before his eightieth birthday.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The World's Top Three Movie Stars

I love this picture of the happy trio, the three most popular movie stars in the world in 1919 when, along with director D.W. Griffith, they founded United Artists in order to produce and distribute their own films. 

Sitting on the shoulders of the ever-athletic Douglas Fairbanks Sr. are Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Their fans came to expect antics like this of the three. So much so that when they formed U.A. some wit was heard to say, "Now the lunatics are running the asylum." How wrong they were!
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Melbourne Spurr, Celebrity Photographer of Silent Era Stars

I recently came across a Facebook page devoted to the work of Melbourne Spurr, another of Mary Pickford's many photographers. Spurr arrived in Hollywood around 1917 and went to work for noted photographer Fred Hartsook (see my previous blog post). Spurr, who happened to be deaf, took many exquisite portraits of Mary, and his work so impressed her that she helped launch his career. By the 1920s, he had become one of the top celebrity photographers in Hollywood.
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Monday, May 16, 2011

One of Mary Pickford's Favourite Photographers, Hartsook Studios

During the course of researching and writing Mary Pickford, Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, I often came across portraits of Mary that had been taken by Hartsook Studios. I was interested in knowing more about this chain of portrait studios which, in 1921, was the largest photographic business in the world.

Fred Hartsook was born in Indiana in 1876, into a family of photographers and studio owners. Although trained as a civil engineer, Fred became a wandering photographer after he and his wife, also a photographer, arrived in California, about 1906. They travelled the state taking pictures and using a team of oxen to pull Fred's homemade darkroom.

Eventually, Fred opened a photographic studio in Los Angeles and did so well that he was able to expand into other cities along the west coast of the U.S. He became famous for his portraits of celebrities, including many of Hollywood's stars of  the silent films such as Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. 

Hartsook was also able to take up life as a rancher, and he and his wife became resort owners, developing Hartsook Inn on 37 acres of California redwood forest. The inn became a favourite of many Hollywood celebrities, including Bing Crosby and Mary Pickford. Fred died of a heart attack at the age of 54. His widow continued to operate the inn until 1938.

The photograph above is my favourite Hartsook photo of Mary. Let me know if you have favourites of your own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Writer While Travelling

I suspect, like any writer, I'd be lost away from home without some writing supplies. I'm never without the pocket-size notebook anyway, the one that comes in handy in my day-to-day routine, to pass the time during long waits or to jot down sudden insights. This is where I record the current trip, hour by hour: the miles we cover, at what time we set out each morning, the stops we make along the way, the weather, the scenery, even the traffic flow. All this is useful for future reference, providing us with the most reliable way of knowing exactly how long it takes us to get to Myrtle Beach, or elsewhere. And it's entertaining to look back at these notes during cold Canadian Marches, if only to remind us of where we were a year ago.

One of my lined yellow scratch pads comes along on the journey too. In fact I used it when drafting this post to my blog. I also pack my regular daily journal into my bag. This is where I'll record any particularly remarkable days we spend, a place or an event that deserves preserving in the best way I know how.

And because I'm usually in the process of writing or editing something, this time the Mary Pickford biography, I take my notes for that along. I also made sure I had the manuscript on a flash drive, in case I heard from my editor.

Because I never want to be caught without some paper and a pen, I make sure my writing supplies go into the suitcase along with the bathing suits and walking shoes.

Happy trails!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mary Pickford Postcards

Ever since I began work on my book, Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart (Quest Biography), my cousin, who collects vintage postcards, has been on the look out for cards featuring portraits of Mary. The other day I was delighted to receive in the mail a package of several postcards from my cousin.

I never paid much attention to postcards before this, except to enjoy those sent by friends and family visiting far away places, or those I purchased myself to augment my own vacation pictures. But collecting postcards -- buying, selling and trading them -- is right up there with collecting stamps and coins as a popular hobby . I decided I should learn a little more about this fascinating pastime.

The collection and study of  postcards is called deltiology. When the first postcards to use real photos appeared around 1900, many featured portraits of entertainers or family members. For a while, in the "undivided back" era (December 24, 1901 to March 1, 1907), anyone sending a message on the card had to write over the picture on the front. The back was reserved for the address and postage. After March 1, 1907, postcards came with a divided back, allowing space for the message.  That fact could help to narrow down the year a particular postcard was printed.
Mary Pickford was just one of a number of early film stars to be pictured on vintage postcards. And now I'm going to pay a little more attention to the postcards I come across.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Postive Review

Just when I was wondering how much longer this cold, wet spring can last, and if there will ever be any good news, along comes a glowing review of my latest novel, Growing Up Ivy
 Four stars out of four; highly recommended! To read it, click on the following link:

One always hopes someone out there will take the time to submit a review of the book. After all, the publicity department sent out all those lovely, advanced reading copies.

The only thing worse than a bad review, they tell me, is no review at all. That would lead one to think his book fell into the proverbial black hole. Did no one read it??

But a good review in a well-respected journal does wonders for the writer's morale. And it was just what I needed during this less-than-springtime season.

Write on!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Another Canadian Star of the Silents

It was interesting to discover, while researching the life and times of Mary Pickford for my upcoming book, several other Canadians who were working in the silent picture industry at about the same time.

One who preceded Mary as "The Biograph Girl" was Hamilton-born Florence Lawrence. Born Florence Annie Bridgwood on June 2, 1886, she was billed for her earliest theatre performances as "Baby Flo, the Child Wonder Whistler."

Six years older than Mary, Florence was already a member of the permanent company at the Biograph studio in New York when seventeen-year-old Mary Pickford arrived, looking for work in the "flickers."

Unfortunately, Florence Lawrence's story has a tragic ending. She was seriously burned in a staged fire that got out of control at another studio in 1915, and as a result, she was in shock for months. Although Florence had already made hundreds of movies, she never fully recovered from the trauma and was never able to regain her previous stature as a star. She took her own life by ingesting ant paste just after Christmas, 1938. 

Look for mention of Florence Lawrence in Mary Pickford: Canada's Silent Siren, America's Sweetheart, available in September, 2011.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Discovering Ways to Improve the Writing

As I often do when I am between writing projects, I've been going back through my writing file and re-reading some of my early, unpublished pieces. I'm looking for ideas that might be worth salvaging, but what I'm really finding is one of the reasons why these stories didn't work.

In some cases, they weren't stories at all, but rather little slices of life. In real life, we may accept our fate and do our best to carry on. That's life perhaps, but it's not the stuff of novels. I realize now that there wasn't enough happening in the stories to keep my (the writer's) interest, let alone the reader's. That's probably the reason they were left unfinished.  I made the mistake of letting things happen in the story by way of coincidence or lucky accident.

There wasn't enough tension in these stories either, because I didn't give my character a big enough problem to solve. He needs to have a enough of a stake in the problem that he'll be moved to take action.

So now, it's back to square one. At least I'll have lots to keep me busy till we start the copy edit on Mary Pickford.