An Invitation Into a World Gone By

Kathleen Shoop has stopped by the blog today to share her thoughts on balancing fact and story in historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Magician, part of her Donora story collection, illustrates the difficult choices brought about by following your dreams. Over to you, Kathleen.

Kathleen Shoop has stopped by the blog today to share her thoughts on balancing fact and story in historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Magician, part of her Donora story collection, illustrates the difficult choices brought about by following your dreams. Over to you, Kathleen.


Writers, scholars, and even readers argue about Historical Fiction’s obligation to story versus the expectation of historical fact. Somewhere in between is the fine line that splits these worlds. Historical stories seek to express some truth about a particular place, time or people and use elements of fact and narrative to accomplish it. 

For the years that I’ve been writing The Magician—Book Three in the Donora Story CollectionI’ve revisited these concerns repeatedly. Because the novel is inspired by the childhood of baseball Hall of Famer, Stan Musial, the work was thrilling yet worrisome. I wanted to portray Stan Musial’s magical rise to baseball royalty accurately, sensitively, and truthfully. I’m still not sure what exactly that means or whether I’ve accidentally on purpose achieved it, but I definitely committed to the work that it takes to get an author there. Still, at times I panicked that what I was writing wasn’t true enough. 

For example, in Musial’s autobiography he tells a family story related to him sneaking sips of sweetened milk as a child and that his sisters were tasked with keeping him from doing that. They didn’t always succeed. I thought this one Musial sentiment was so illustrative of the life and times of a blue collar family living in Donora, Pennsylvania in the 1920’s and 30’s that I worked out a scene depicting this event. 

It gave me a chance to invite the reader into the female dominated kitchens of early 20th century America. This, a time when friends and grandmas who lived a few doors down stopped for morning coffee. They did this in between dropping off care baskets for families whose fathers got injured in the mill and getting supper ready for when their own husbands rolled through the door after a scorching shift in the zinc mill. Musial’s notation of his milk swiping habit overflowed with the trappings of the story behind the story—the very stuff that props up every historical fiction piece ever written.

Moments like this casually mentioned in autobiographies, articles and a half a dozen biographies were the things I latched on to in order to give Stan Musial’s childhood a heartbeat. Because the purpose of most of those other writings was to show some aspect of Musial’s adult baseball life, I reveled in teasing out these gems that called to mind a time long gone. These little story stones evoked events specific to Musial’s rise to baseball greatness but were also universal in meaning to anyone who’s lived in a small factory, mill, or mining town in post WW1 and Pre WW2 America.

Not only was the tale of the milk theft a cool detail about Stan’s life, a possible “economic calamity” (phrasing I borrowed), there was a world behind the idea that canned milk was precious enough to ration it for the adults. This allowed me to develop Musial’s character, the family dynamic, the male head of household concept, and so much more that marked American life in the 20s and 30s in delicious, unique ways. That one mention was a gold mine in my eyes.

But was creating a scene around this milk pilfering factual? In moments of panic, I’d be drawn away from drafting to figure out yet again what I was doing, what my goals were. I would remind myself that if I was worried about fictionalizing scenes I could simply write another biography. But of course biographies have been done beautifully and many times before. And besides, that wasn’t what I was attempting to do. In writing about a revered and renowned man I was using narrative to get at the essence of what built him into a person who embodied greatness in a variety of ways. A list of facts wouldn’t suffice. 

I wanted readers who love a good story, but maybe had no idea who Stan Musial was, who didn’t even like baseball, to love The Magician despite all that. I wanted to provide an opening for readers to slip into another time and place and get an idea of how a spectacular athlete and person was shaped by a town, his family and the times. And the only way to do that was to walk the center rope, pulling factual threads from the left as I went, weaving them into the narrative on the right, finishing with a tightly woven fabric depicting a world long gone, a person laid to rest. 

What I found was that the mythology of Stan Musial needed the facts of his life as much as the opposite was true. Now, as The Magician is soon to be released, I hope that the combination of fact and story reveal something very close to what was the heart of a boy and his dream to make a living playing baseball. And so much more than that.

Many thanks, Kathleen. You’ve shown us the delicate balance required of fictional biography. Sending best wishes for the launch of The Magician.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin

A few weeks ago, I read The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin which is a fascinating look at the early days of the movie industry. Among Benjamin’s novels are The Aviator’s Wife (a great story about Anne Morrow Lindbergh) and the NYTimes bestseller The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Interspersed with my review are a few comments from the author.

Hollywood – the glamour, the celebrities, the blend of real and fantasy that captivates and seduces. We know it today as a well-oiled machine. However, in the early nineteen hundreds it was a fledgling industry full of determined, innovative men and women creating something new. Melanie Benjamin’s latest novel, The Girls in the Picture, features Frances Marion, who would ultimately become a famous screenwriter, and superstar Mary Pickford along with their long, tumultuous friendship.

Why did Benjamin choose this story to write?I love early Hollywood; it’s one of my favorite times and places. The film industry was just beginning and it really was like the wild, wild west in a way—everyone was young, nobody had experience, they were making everything up as they went along, with no idea that what they were doing was inventing a new art form. And women were just influential as men in those early years.” Why Frances Marion and Mary Pickford? “Not every real person can carry a novel; I’ve learned that the hard way!  But Mary and Frances leapt out to me; everything about them—their personal lives, their accomplishments and most importantly, their empowering friendship—screamed NOVEL to me!”

As the years unfold, the story glitters with stars and movie big shots—Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Samuel Goldwyn, Cecille B. Demille, Hedda Hopper, Rudolph Valentino—and the gradual shift from silent films with simple plots to longer, still silent films and then on to talkies.

Mary Pickford adapts as the industry changes but ultimately fails to make the transition to spoken dialogue successfully. In contrast Frances Marion’s writing talents grow once she gives herself permission to write and to be the “person who could move an audience to a frenzy, and start a revolution of her own.” Frances ultimately thrives as moviegoers and industry executives look for stories with more complexity. For both characters, the challenges of such a dynamic environment are significant. In the long run, as men come to dominate the industry, they struggle to remain in charge of their destinies.

Bookended by two scenes from 1969, the story unfolds chronologically from 1914 to 1932. It is full of insights into how the movie business developed and who was involved. The risks and unsavoury choices facing women are portrayed alongside the opportunities. Fran observes about Mary: “Why had I never even thought to ask her about this kind of abuse; what else had she, and others like her, had to suffer—to accept—as part of the steep price some men exacted for a woman’s ambition?”

Through Mary Pickford’s and Frances Marion’s struggles to find an enduring relationship with the men in their lives, Melanie Benjamin illuminates the complications of love for women in the movie business. “Men can be in love and it doesn’t affect anything else they do; it gives them even more cachet. It adds something to them. But for women, love doesn’t add, it subtracts. Why do I feel as if falling in love means I have to give something up?”

With an impoverished, fatherless childhood, and the role of family breadwinner, Mary was incredibly vulnerable: “… she was afraid of losing everything she’d worked so hard to achieve. She was scared. Every day on the set—every day of her life—she was scared.” Even though Mary was one of Hollywood’s golden stars and had “more experience than any of them, [she] still wasn’t always taken seriously, just patted on the head and told to smile prettily for the camera.”

World War One was a turning point for Frances Marion: “Some people want to be of use. Even women, you know. We don’t all like the idea of sitting at home while our menfolk take care of all the difficult things in life.” Hollywood was different after the war, no longer new and struggling, instead it had become big business with huge international potential because Europe had been so devastated by the war. While Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and two others form what becomes United Artists, Frances goes her own way. “There was a new gulf between them filled with different experiences, different ideas. She could only hope they’d find a way to bridge it.”

In this post-war period Fran reflects: “I was strong. I was capable. I didn’t need Mary to pave the way for me anymore.” And she realizes that her dearest friend had changed: “there used to be a time when she [Mary] understood how to be a friend as well as a movie star.”

The Girls in the Picture alternates between two voices: Frances Marion written in first person and Mary Pickford in third person. Although Fran’s is the stronger, more engaging voice, Benjamin’s approach allows readers to more fully appreciate each character’s motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Why did Melanie Benjamin choose this approach? Apparently her editor suggested it and the approach worked. “To me, it reinforced the idea that this is Frances writing Mary’s story—just as Frances wrote Mary’s movies, wrote her life, in a way, all those years ago.”

This compelling look at two famous women entertains and informs while transporting readers to the magical kingdom of the movie industry. Highly recommended.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Babe Ruth’s Movie Came First – by David O. Stewart

babe ruth in headin' homeDavid O. Stewart is President of the Washington Independent Review of Books – a nonprofit website dedicated to book reviews and writing about the world of books. I’ve had the privilege of writing articles and reviews for WIROBooks and I’m delighted to have David on the blog with a post on his novel The Babe Ruth Deception. Thanks for being here, David.

Babe Ruth’s Movie Came First! – By David O. Stewart

Most historical novels get written because the author is dissatisfied with the standard historical accounts of a time, or an episode, or a person.

Sometimes the author thinks that history got it wrong. That’s the message in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, which proclaims King Richard III entirely innocent of killing the little princes in the Tower of London. It’s also the reason I wrote my first historical mystery, The Lincoln Deception, about the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy.

Sometimes the author thinks that history swept past something really interesting that warrants a close look. That’s the genesis of Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, which places the spotlight squarely on a single regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg (the 20th Maine) and the experience of the private soldiers in that regiment.

That second reason gave rise to my most recent novel, The Babe Ruth Deception, which considers the Babe’s first two years with the New York Yankees, a time when Ruth reinvented baseball by hitting home runs at a rate no one thought possible.

I came to Babe Ruth because I knew that the third novel in my series should be set in the early 1920s, since the last one (The Wilson Deception) was set in 1919. The era seemed a natural: Prohibition, bootlegging, votes for women, radical terrorism and the usual backlash, rising hemlines and drooping moral standards!

I swiftly decided that the Babe was the perfect avatar of the era. He changed baseball forever, charming the nation while indulging heroic appetites for liquor, food, and female companionship. And in the process he created an American culture of celebrity that still infects us. Perfect.

But, wait, what was the story?

That was when I found the movie. While poking around on the Internet, I stumbled upon an hourlong silent feature that the Babe filmed in the summer of 1920, his first season in New York with the Yankees. He “acted” in the mornings then hustled to the ballpark in time to take the field for the 3 p.m. starting times.

The film – called Headin’ Home, which you can watch herewas pretty forgettable, except for the chance to see the young Babe. So many of our impressions of him come from clips of the potbellied middle-aged Babe Ruth, pigeon-toeing his way around the bases in the last years of his career. But Headin’ Home showed the young, vital guy who changed the world of sports and celebrity.

So I kept poking around, looking for more, and came upon something amazing. The principal financier of Headin’ Home was Abe Attell, who coughed up $50,000 for a film that bombed across America. In the old Hollywood phrase, people stayed away in droves.

Who was Abe Attell? Only the former featherweight champion of the world, whose second career was. . . . gangster and racketeer.

Be still my heart.

The more I dug into Attell, the better it got. He was the righthand man to America’s leading gambler, Arnold Rothstein. Fans of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire know that Rothstein was the Man Who Fixed The 1919 World Series, the infamous “Black Sox” scandal that almost ruined baseball.

But wait! There’s more! Not only did Rothstein bribe eight players on the Chicago White Sox to throw the World Series, but he used Abe Attell to deliver the cash. Attell got indicted in Chicago in September 1920 along with the White Sox ballplayers, but in the way that things sometimes happened in Chicago, his indictment was dismissed.

So at the same time that Attell was bankrolling Babe Ruth’s movie debut, he was hip deep in baseball’s biggest scandal ever.

Babe Ruth. Arnold Rothstein. Abe Attell.

Now that could make a story.

Many thanks for sharing the story behind the story, David. I know a friend of mine who would love your novel! And it’s truly intriguing to hear another author’s process of inspiration.

The Babe Ruth Deception – Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, is having a record-breaking season in his first year as a New York Yankee. Larger than life on the field and off, Ruth is about to discover what the Chicago White Sox players accused of throwing the 1919 World Series are learning—baseball heroes are not invulnerable to scandal. With suspicion in the air, Ruth’s 1918 World Series win for the Boston Red Sox is now being questioned. Under scrutiny by the new baseball commissioner and enmeshed with gambling kingpin Arnold Rothstein, Ruth turns for help to Speed Cook—a former professional ballplayer himself before the game was segregated and now a promoter of Negro baseball—who’s familiar with the dirty underside of the sport.

Cook in turn enlists the help of Dr. Jamie Fraser, whose wife Eliza is coproducing a silent film starring the Yankee outfielder. Restraint does not come easily to the reckless Ruth, but the Frasers try to keep him in line while Cook digs around. As all this plays out, Cook’s son Joshua and Fraser’s daughter Violet are brought together by a shocking tragedy. But an interracial relationship in 1920 feels as dangerous as a public scandal—even more so because Joshua is heavily involved in bootlegging. Trying to protect Ruth and their own children, Fraser and Cook find themselves playing a dangerous game . . .

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website