Before we start, here is the blurb for Tarnished Gold:
In 1915, starstruck Jack Abadie strikes out for the gilded streets of the most sinful town in the country—Hollywood. With him, he takes a secret that his country hometown would never understand.
After years of hard work and a chance invitation to a gay gentlemen’s club, Jack is discovered. Soon, his talent, matinee idol good looks, and affable personality propel him to the height of stardom. But fame breeds distrust.
Meeting Wyatt Maitland turns Jack’s life upside down. He wants to be worthy of his good fortune, but old demons haunt him. Only through Wyatt’s strength can Jack face that which keeps him from being the man he wants to be. Love without trust is empty.
As the 1920s roar, scandals rock the movie industry. Public tolerance of Hollywood’s decadence has reached its limit. Under pressure to clean up its act, Jack’s studio issues an ultimatum. Either forsake the man he loves and remain a box office darling, or follow his heart and let his shining star fade to tarnished gold.
I liken writing a book to raising children. They are born, they grow, they mature. They change as time goes on, adopt traits of the parents and even their friends. You want to shut them away in a room, protect them from the bullies, but reality is that, in the end, they were born to fly the coop and join the world.
Books start out as a blank page, with sometimes nothing more than a title (that is if you aren’t me, who never has a title to start with) and your name, much like the tests you took in school. With a spark of an idea, you begin, with the hope that what you have in your head translates to the written page.
Most books begin with research. As I discussed last month, research is mandatory for historical novels, and in my opinion, contemporaries as well. For Tarnished Gold, my novel set in the golden age of Hollywood, I dug into some of the books that I’ve collected over the years, as well as purchased many more.
I spent some time on the phone with Damon Suede, who is an ace at anything Hollywood related. Damon was a great source of encouragement and knowledge, and he guided me to many books that became indispensible in helping me shape Jack Abadie’s story.
I also tapped my own knowledge, as I have been an old Hollywood buff since I can remember. As a girl, I spent many a summer morning watching Charlie Chase, Mae West, and Buster Keaton on television. The movies were old then, but I loved them. The affected speech, the camp, the melodrama, and the slapstick comedy. I was in with both feet.
I’ve always read biographical books and have indulged my onetime dream of stardom vicariously through the lives of those who actually did something about it. Acting in high school does not a star make—but I digress.
Biographies are a wonderful way to discover what makes people tick, why they do the things they do. But that isn’t enough to create a world, or rather, recreate a world, in the case of Hollywood. I read about the men and women who shaped Hollywood in the early years—Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks (be still my heart!,) Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Novarro. These folks not only acted, but they set the tone for those years, the early years, in an industry that was in its infancy.
I determined early on that my character, Jack Abadie, would rise to a pivotal position, but I left that undefined for much of the planning and writing process. I like to have my characters guide me and Jack knew exactly where he wanted this story to go.
For years, I’ve known about an actor by the name of William Haines. Billy was as handsome as Valentino and Ramon Novarro, more talented than Clark Gable, who came on the scene just as Billy ended his acting career, and was as determined a man as I’ve ever read about.
Billy Haines was the first openly gay actor in Hollywood. He was fiercely loyal and indulgent of his partner, Jimmie Shields. They were a couple from 1926, until Billy’s death in 1973. Billy accommodated his employers, but he was uncompromising in his beliefs, particularly about his homosexuality. When Louis B. Mayer insisted that Billy marry a woman and banish Jimmie from his life, Billy’s answer was, “I’m already married.”
I wanted Billy’s qualities to permeate my character Jack. While yielding to reason, Jack doesn’t suffer fools. He learns his craft, he sees the obstacles a mile away, and he avoids all that will deter him from his ultimate goals. Yes, Jack has many goals. Some stay constant, while others change or fall by the wayside, depending upon their importance.
With this much established, I went to work creating the foundation upon which Tarnished Gold is built. I can honestly say that this is first novel that I’ve written, where I could actually see the building blocks as I laid them into place.
The story takes place over the course of forty years, taking into consideration the epilogue, which starts twenty-five years after the end of the main book. Jack is a young man when the book starts—green, anxious, in love with his best friend, and above all else, star struck. He spends many hours in the balcony of the Prytania movie theater, watching Wallace Reid, his all-time favorite actor. He wants to be Wallace Reid one day and he has a plan to make that happen. In creating the feeling for Jack in the balcony of the theater, I recalled the many Saturday afternoons my husband and I have spent at the Prytania.
First thing, I had to create Jack. He had to start out as a twenty-one year old kid, who had no idea how to groom his hair or dress for the world without his mother’s help. He had to have classic good looks, along with a healthy dose of charming naiveté.
I am a huge fan of John Barrowman, Captain Jack from Torchwood. It is John that I imagined in the role as Jack Abadie. It is Captain Jack from whence Jack’s first name comes. Smiling John, in my head, became Jack Abadie for me.
Before I start to write any book, I create an index card for each character. On that card (and sometimes cards,) I write all the characteristics that the character should possess, and which I must portray. As the writing proceeds, more and more gets added to the card.
At first, I create the main characters, as I pull in secondaries when I need them. My index card system for each book consists of character outlines, scene ideas, notes about how a certain premise should play out, as well all my ideas for plot twists and turns. As a visual person, I have to “see” my characters. Many times, I have an actor in mind, but sometimes, I will search stock art to find the look I want.
Having lived in the Deep South for many years, I am familiar with the plantation system that existed well into the twentieth century. My husband’s grandparents worked on the Willswood sugar plantation in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Uranie Madere Berthelot cooked for the men who worked the fields, while Wilfred Berthelot was a carpenter.
After the schoolhouse burned down, my husband’s mother went to school in the front room at the overseer’s house, a home that my husband later grew up in when his grandparents bought the structure, tore it down, and rebuilt it on their own property. Fifty years later, my mother in law took up a smaller residence and that front room served as both of my daughters’ bedroom. We lived in that house for twenty years.
It is from Willswood Plantation that Jack emerges, excited to tackle a world he knows nothing about. His father, Wilfred, is a carpenter, while his mother, Amelie, cooked for the men who worked the plantation. Jack’s brother Andrew, has Wilfred Berthelot’s middle name. Amelie was the name of a woman who lived next door to us. I make mention of Mrs. Faucheaux (Foe-shay)—she was another neighbor.
One of my husband’s least favorite memories of summer in the Deep South is of bathing, then sweating profusely before he was finished dressing. Jack experiences this as well. Jack never quite forsakes his Cajun roots. Therefore, he uses the endearment cher—dear in French.
Well into the book, someone tells Jack that he works too hard. His answer? “You can sleep when you die.” My mother in law used to say that all the time.
The character Eric is named for my dear brother, while Matthew in the book is named for Eric’s son. As a homage to my New England roots, I named Jack’s character in Plantation Bride Charlie Moon, after my great grandfather. He was a farmer in Stephentown, New York and became father to my grandmother in 1911. In 1925, his wife Clara died at the age of 34, after giving birth to her eighth child.
Charlie worked hard to keep his young family together, but in 1927, he succumbed to pneumonia at the age of forty-two. Theirs is a tragic, yet heartwarming story that I would love to write about one day.
Over the course of many years, Jack Abadie matures. As a writer, it was fun to see that progression, the change in attitude, the resignation that we all must experience when we discover that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
Jack goes to Hollywood with a Cajun accent, saying things like N’Awlins and Catlic (Catholic.) He favors gumbo and jambalaya to any food anyone can cook. He knows nothing other than the plantation and the close-knit family from which he kept the secret of his sexuality, save his brother who was his lifelong ally. Hollywood could have eaten him alive, but his Louisiana roots, and Wyatt, kept him grounded.
This phase of Jack’s journey is loosely based on my own experience when I left home at eighteen for the bright streets of Boston. I’ve often said that we possess our most bravado when we are young and know no better. I struck out and found a boarding house for young college girls and those who worked in offices in town. Great camaraderie, but put a naïve young girl out into a world so different from what she’s known, and well, situations happen. One grows up fast, as I did and as Jack did in Hollywood.
When a writer writes a story like Tarnished Gold, you can’t help but invest a part of yourself in it. You draw upon your life experiences, the many people that have passed through your life, your knowledge of how life works.
Tarnished Gold is emotional in that Jack must find himself and where he fits. Life doesn’t fit us in, we must adapt, as Jack learns, as we all learn.
I grew to love Jack deeply, as I did Wyatt Maitland, the man who is truly Jack’s other half. Writing these two men, the evolution of not only their relationship, but of the times in which they lived, made me recall many things in my life, good and bad. Sometimes it’s nice to do that. Reminds you of what is truly important and what doesn’t really matter at all.
One thing is for sure—what matters today likely won’t matter a year from now. It is good to keep that in mind when we are obsessing over the small things.
Jack Abadie confronts all the things we do—love, loss, tragedy, indecision, unreasonable expectations, reality, all against the backdrop of the most artificial place in the world, Hollywood. Yet, he emerges a very real person, one with uncompromising integrity. He is true to himself and takes with him the lessons of old, those things his mother taught him.
I hope you enjoy Tarnished Gold. I certainly enjoyed writing it for you.
Preorder Tarnished Gold at Dreamspinner Press. It will be on virtual bookshelves on March 25, in ebook and print. The first 20 people who purchase the print version, will receive a signed copy.
Until next month, read, read, read.