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There are many approaches to writing historical fiction, most involve research, but Do Tell author Lindsay Lynch took things to another level. Do Tell brings readers behind the scenes of the Golden Age of Hollywood where actress turned gossip columnist Edie O’Dare is instrumental in leaking the story that launches the trial of the century, pitting a young starlet against America’s cinematic hero. Everything hinges on public opinion, and public opinion hinges on Edie’s column. To fully understand her characters, Lindsay Lynch decided to live in their world as much as possible. Learn about her experience and how she reckoned with the good, the bad, and the ugly of 1930s and ’40s Hollywood to produce her debut novel.
There was a period of time while I was researching and drafting my novel, Do Tell, when I attempted to live in Golden Age Hollywood. In reality, I was actually living in Wyoming and, in the thick of winter there, there wasn’t much else to do. Most of my creative cohort in Laramie had two options for when the temperatures dropped to subzero for months at a time: undertake a project or descend into cabin fever. Truth be told, I might have done both.
Like most good ideas, this one was stolen from a poet—total immersion in the world of your work. For a set period of time, make a curated list and restrict what you read, listen to, or watch. No social media, no outside noise. After a week or so, the music starts to loop, the stories talk to each other, patterns emerge, and your entire world weirdly coalesces around the work.
It’s a hard stunt to pull off if you’re not already isolated, and for better or for worse, I was very isolated. I only read nonfiction about Hollywood or fiction written during the time period, I had access to a large archive of fan magazines and articles, I cheated a bit on the music (look, I love a big band as much as anyone else, but it’s difficult to write with that many trumpets in your ears), and I exclusively watched movies made between 1935 and 1945.
I grew up watching old films with my parents, starting with the holiday classics of Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life (that’s where I learned my Jimmy Stewart impression, which, trust me, is both very good and very accurate), then moving onto screwball comedies (we’re big fans of Bringing Up Baby and the Thin Man series in my family), and eventually making my way to the heavy hitters of the era—Gone with the Wind, The Philadelphia Story, Citizen Kane.
When I went into my state of total immersion, I wanted to make sure I watched everything the average person from the era would have had access to, the good and the bad. For every Casablanca, I watched at least three films that ranged from mediocre but entertaining, to poorly produced C-list films, to films that were blatantly offensive. Some of the mediocre ones were funny—I particularly enjoyed a 1940 film called Too Many Husbands, in which Jean Arthur loses her husband in a freak boating accident, so she remarries, and when her first husband makes a surprise return, she has (spoiler alert) too many husbands!
But then there’s also the experience of watching the 1936 film Swing Time, which for the first three-quarters is a standard Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle and then mid-way through the big finale, Astaire starts applying makeup and does a full dance number in blackface. Astaire was adamant that the scene was meant to be an homage to the vaudeville performer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Or how about Day-Time Wife, a 1939 film in which a newly married young woman suspects her husband is cheating on her with his secretary, so instead of confronting him about it, she becomes a secretary to see if her boss makes untoward advances on her (guess what, he does!). Linda Darnell was only sixteen when she starred in that film—before signing a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox, they added two years to her age to justify casting her in romantic roles with adult men.
When I started researching and writing Do Tell, I had a lot of fears about working in an era that is so heavily romanticized in our cultural memory. Don’t get me wrong, I clearly love the time period myself—I don’t know that I could’ve spent that long winter with only 1930s and 40s Hollywood for company if I didn’t. Nothing makes me happier than watching Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer face off in The Women, or swooning when Jimmy Stewart delivers that speech to melt Katharine Hepburn (and the audience, let’s be real) in The Philadelphia Story, or delighting in an epic final duel like the one between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone in The Mark of Zorro.
I’ve returned to these movies time and time again over the years—for the cleverness of the writing, the beauty of the production, the charisma of the actors and actresses—but I can’t ignore the fact that all of this was made on a corrupt foundation of prejudice, abuse, and exploitation. Do Tell is a novel about the space between the sound stage and the other side of the camera: the audience sees a gorgeous actress delivering heartfelt lines, what we don’t see is the director barking orders at her, the costar leering at her between scenes, the screenwriter who made sure her lines were morally righteous enough to pass the Hays Code, the publicist who demanded that she undergo surgical procedures to fix a hairline or a bad tooth, or the executive who lied about her age to put her in a role with a man ten years her senior.