"Milk"--and bringing an historical world to life
Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season. I had a fabulous time celebrating with friends and family and indulging in a couple of my favorite holiday (and non-holiday) activities--shopping (the sales were amazing even if I was on more of a budget than usual) and going to the movies. I saw two wonderful movies, Doubt (as thought-provoking on film as when I saw it in the theater) and Milk. Milk was shattering, left me in tears, and to me felt much more immediate than a lot of bio-pics do. Of course it didn't hurt that I remember a lot of the events vividly. The Prop 6 campaign, and my mom saying "not that I'm worried about who teaches my daughter, but if I was worried I'd be a lot more worried about heterosexual men." One of my classmates (who must have heard it on the radio, because we didn't have tv at school and it was way before radio) bursting into my 7th grade class with the news that San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated. Going home and asking my parents why it had happened and "what happens now?"
But it was one particular cinematic view in Milk that really took me back in time. In the mid-to-late 70s, my mom and I often spent weekend afternoons at the Castro Theater, seeing old movies (no VCRs yet). We usually parked on the other side of Market Street and walked down the hill to the theater. There's one shot in Milk, down that hill, showing the theater marquee, that took my breath away because it looked so like what I remembered.
And that, I realized, is part of what we try to do as historical novelists--recreate the past so vividly that the reader feels she or he has stepped back into an historical era. It isn't easy. Usually we're writing about eras far beyond our memory and often in far away places. Even if we're able to visit the setting of our books, inevitably the scene has changed. The production team for Milk worked hard to recreate the San Francisco of the 70s. Two of my friends were extras in the movie. They were briefed on how to dress to fit the era and watched the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk before they shot the scenes they were in (they also talked to people who had known Harvey Milk who said Sean Penn was so like him it was uncanny). I was at a party in the Castro neighborhood the day before I saw the movie, so the difference between the way the neighborhood looked in the movie and the way it looks today was vivid. The marquee of the Castro Theater looks different, signs were changed, old storefronts and restaurants recreated.
As a novelist, I do a similar sort of "set dressing" in my head. I've spent quite a bit of time sitting in Berkeley Square, looking at the house that's my mental image for Charles and Mélanie's house and the Georgian houses next to it (pictured above), imagining the square lined with similar houses, the plane trees younger, the red telephone booth gone, phaetons and barouches and curricles in place of cars, Regency-dressed children their nurses playing in the park. I walk down London Street mentally editing out the Victoriana (and anything later), trying to blend the sights before me with period engravings of how the street in question looked in the era of my books. I go into country houses that have been redone through the centuries and try to imagine them before post-Regency embellishments.
Have you visited the locations in your books (or looked at contemporary photographs) and tried to mentally "set dress" them to the era you're writing about? Have you seen Milk? If you lived through the era, did it feel authentic? If don't remember the time and events, did you find the movie compelling? Other holiday movies you found memorable?