Melanie Gall is a woman of many talents. She is an author, an editor, a historian, a musician, a performer, and more. She tours within and outside of the U.S., putting on shows full of razzle and dazzle and all that jazz: A Toast to Prohibition and A Talent to Amuse: The Noel Coward Story are just the latest. Check out her albums on her website, and preorder her book Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood here.
The other day, I was at New York’s Museum of Natural History with a couple of friends. Safely masked and vaxxed, for the first time since the pandemic began, we had a regular girls’ day out. As we wandered through the Hall of Gems and Minerals and then the Hall of Biodiversity, my friend noted that one of the stuffed bears had been in the collection since 1892.
“That’s a hundred and thirty years ago,” she said. “I wonder what New York was like back then?”
Without thinking I replied, “Easy. That’s the year Eddie Cantor was born in the tenements of the Lower East Side. It was when the anti-sparrow protection laws in New York were in full force, and the year Merry Gotham opened on Broadway.”
One friend was a lifelong New Yorker, so she took this all in stride. But the other gave me a look that made me pause. I was suddenly aware that it was a bit odd to have so many seemingly random bits of historic tidbits at the ready. At least, it would seem that way to someone whose writings didn’t center around presenting and preserving history.
You see, I’m a music historian. Over the pandemic, I wrote and secured a book deal for Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood, a biography of 1930s Hollywood star Deanna Durbin. And to properly understand and recount life of a forgotten historic figure—in a way that both serves history and presents the material in a compelling and relatable manner—there needs to be context. And to effectively build that context, I immersed myself in the popular culture of the time. And learned a lot of, well, unusual history.
Wondering about millinery trends in the early twentieth century? I got it. Pondering when the first “morality clauses” were introduced into Hollywood contracts? I’m your gal. Feel like hearing about the litigious nature of inventor Thomas Edison? Oh, don’t get me started…. So many random facts, and it’s all just part of the job.
You see, every writer needs the skills and tools to properly serve their genre, and this is something a lot of people don’t sit down and think about. If you’re writing Science Fiction, Fantasy, or any sort of Apocalyptic or Dystopic novel, you need to be able to build a world, defining and remaining consistent with the rules that govern your universe. There’s memoir, where the writer needs to be able to tell a personal story while looking beyond their often still-raw emotions to create a work that is both relatable and marketable. A mystery has to be mysterious. Erotica needs to actually be scintillating. And so on.
I recently edited a manuscript where the writer fully admitted that he had never read any other books in the genre. Not one. My first piece of advice (after “don’t capitalize every word you happen to like in the next draft or I’ll stab myself in the eye with a fork”) was, of course, for him to research the genre. Understand the conventions. Understand what is trite and what is original. And learn what tools you already have or that you need to gain to write the best book possible. And for a history book (and no matter how much I’d love to craft a world with magic gerbils and flying toasters, I know my strength is non-fiction) one of the strongest tools needed is an in-depth knowledge of the history surrounding and influencing the events in the book. Because as a author/historian, I’m not just preserving history, I’m making vital decisions about how it will be remembered. And that is a heavy responsibility.
It’s probably a good thing that there haven’t been any parties for the past two years, because I’d
probably be that person expounding upon the most random things while other people chat about the weather and the most recent Marvel film. But meanwhile, I’ve just finished my second book, which is a history of house sparrows in North America. And oh, you have no idea the crazy things I’ve learned….