Research Notes · 01/03/2014

Unmentionables

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Laurie Loewenstein writes about Unmentionables from Akashic Books.

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Offered the chance to contribute to this series, my first thought was to write about some research materials I accumulated but used only tangentially in my historical novel, Unmentionables. The angle would be something about the bits left on the cutting room floor.

As soon as this thought gelled, I experienced an intense itch. Exactly what is a “cutting room floor”? What is the origin of the phrase? Would the snippets be celluloid? Would the floor be wooden? This requireed research. Research which gladdens the heart of history majors, writers of historical fiction and procrastinators alike.

You can see the problem.

A major character in the novel is a newspaper publisher, circa 1918. Poking around the Internet for typesetting, font, and printing press information, I stumbled upon the linotype. The linotype was a technological marvel, the next step up from setting type by hand. The operator used a keyboard to control a complex set of brass matrices by which letters were formed from molten metal and dropped into place. I spent a happy week exploring the linotype in all its clattering glory. Alas, barely any of this made it into my newspaper chapters. In the end, it just wasn’t needed. Here, however, is a fascinating film trailer I watched over and over again:

After a time, the publisher’s daughter has a dalliance with a young man who is painting a large advertisement on the wall outside the newspaper office. Known at the time as wall dogs, these traveling painters journeyed from town to town with their brushes, scaffolds and large paper patterns. The vocation was rife with slang, romance and mayhem, as I discovered in an oral history recorded by the Federal Writers Project. I spent many days in the company of a pair of these painters, one of whom had once fallen from a 40-foot scaffold and was back at work the next day. The other claimed to have flirted with a girl in a window of a house he was working on and married her within two weeks. But for all the colorful details I collected about wall dogs, I only used a small portion. If allowed, my wall dog, Louie Ivey, would have wandered off with the story, taking it to the next town over and eventually ditching it for something better. Here is the photo that I took as a model for the fictional sign painted on the newspaper office. The two painters pose with their finished work in Wichita, Kansas, around 1915.

Like thrifty seamstresses, most writers squirrel away unused scraps of research like these for possible future use. I have a fat file on my computer desktop labeled “Unused” for just such a contingency.

I need to add that “cutting room floor” initially referred to the planks of a meatpacking plant or textile factory where the bits trimmed off by harried workers often found their way.

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Laurie Loewenstein grew up in the flatlands of western Ohio and now resides in Rochester, NY, where Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872. Unmentionables is her first novel.