30 May 2010

Guest Author: Isabelle Santiago

This week on Unusual Historicals we're featuring Isabelle Santiago, author of 1950s Old Hollywood and Film Noir-style romances. Here's the blurb from her debut novel, CINEMATIC ROYALTY.

Charles Witmore is used to celebrities. As owner of the grand Winmont Hotel in Los Angeles, he has seen them come and go more times than he can count. But the experience is altogether different when silver screen starlet Bridget Phillips walks into his life and crashes into his heart. He's absolutely starstruck. Her beauty is exactly as majestic as has been rumored, but he wonders about the many claims laid against the woman, who seems to be so shrouded in mystery.

Initially claimed by prejudice, he sees nothing more than the ice princess she presents, beautiful and stone cold. But, the more time she spends at his hotel, the more he begins to see there is more to her facade than meets the eye. Soon, she becomes the object of his affection, and in an amusing ploy, his two best friends, Betty and Eleanor, and his cute assistant Tessa, set up the matchmaking scheme of a lifetime.

But will Bridget's dark secret keep Charles from his happily ever after?

With the wealth of Regency historical, gothic Victorian style romances, and other such time periods commonly used in the historical market, what inspired you to write about the 1950s?

Well, the story started when I went to visit an old friend in New York City and was able to stay in a remodeled Art Deco style hotel. The place oozed charm, elegance, and grace, from its white marble floors to the intricate gold crown molded ceilings. Stepping through its doors was like going back in time and I often found myself daydreaming, imagining the important people who had walked its halls once upon a time. And the more I allowed myself to imagine it, the more real the vision became, until I could hear the twinkling keys of the grand piano on the roof conservatory, hear the thud of high heeled feet stomping across lush, carpeted floors, and imagine the big band playing as a group of well dressed men and beautiful women danced the night away in a smoke-filled lounge.

These images stayed with me long after I left the city. I'd always been a fan of the time period. I counted Casablanca, Sabrina, and An Affair to Remember as some of my favorite films. But I never set out to actually write a historical, wasn't sure I even wanted to, since I'm mostly a sci-fi/fantasy gal. Eventually, the story begged to be written, and how could I deny it? Sometimes you just have to go where the muse takes you.

You write the time period as though you lived it yourself. Did you find it difficult to research? What helped put you in the right frame of mind?

There is a surprisingly vast amount of information on the 50s, specifically in the areas of fashion, movies, music and automobiles- the staples of popular culture. It also helps that vintage items are so popular because it gives you a real portrait of the time.

The more specific items were a lot harder to find, like textures of fabrics used in most clothing or the price of cab fare! Things you don't realize you'll really need until you write the scene and are caught completely off guard.

Then there's always the option to interview people who actually lived it. That's the nice thing about writing 'contemporary historicals,' you have witnesses and you can get some really amazing first hand accounts.

As for frame of mind, there were lots and lots of movies and music. You'll notice many of the films of that time have a certain sound, flow, narration to them. I watched all my old favorites and introduced myself to lots of new ones. TCM and I became very close. I also spent time on Frank Sinatra Pandora radio. Lots of Doris Day, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and really moody big band stuff. It was so much fun to listen to.

While CINEMATIC ROYALTY was at its heart a poignant love story, you also made it a point to chronicle your heroine's life in the limelight and talk about the troubles of being in the public eye. What moved you to make that such an important part of her story?

I wanted to play with the notion of public perception and how many of us may not be quite what we portray to others, though in Bridget's case, that was on a much grander scale. We're so inundated with the paparazzi's obsession and opinion on celebrities. And it's changed so much over the decades. Hollywood felt much more glamorous in the 1950s. It was nothing like the press portrays it now, an endless listing of arrests, divorces, and stints in rehab. Men were gentlemen, women were ladies, and celebrities were revered. Like Grace Kelly for instance, whose life mimicked a fairy tale as she found and married her prince. Or Liz Taylor whose stunning good looks and many marriages made her Hollywood's bad girl.

It was all so much larger than life, and it made for great storytelling. Often, these actors' personas were just as much a role as the parts they played. I really wanted to explore what that would do to a person and to a blossoming romance, if one person in the relationship was always worried the other was in love with an image, and not who they really were inside.

CINEMATIC ROYALTY was joined by DARK HOLLYWOOD NIGHTS in the print edition. This story veered into more Katherine Hepburn-like antics, with your heroine, Alexi Grant, being both humorous and spunky.

It's funny you should say that, actually, because the single, largest influence in that story was the movie The Philadelphia Story. I loved the witty banter and the confusion which created classic comedy moments. I wasn't ready to let go of the characters in Cinematic Royalty, but I didn't feel like writing something as heavy or angst-ridden as Charles and Bridget's romance. So I settled for a new set of characters, with the old ones making some fun cameos.

I set it in the same hotel, The Winmont Los Angeles, owned by Charles, the hero from book one, and in that way kept the setting and world familiar to the reader. Then I threw in a murder mystery involving another starlet, keeping the glamorous Hollywood angle, but dealing with two very normal people, an aspiring businesswoman and a private eye. Lots of crazy side characters were born and fun hijinks ensued.


Thanks for stopping by, Isabelle! Readers, would you like to sample a taste of 1950s romance glamor? Leave a comment or question for your chance to win a signed print copy of Isabelle's two-book collection, featuring both CINEMATIC ROYALTY and DARK HOLLYWOOD NIGHTS. Maybe answer of of these questions: Who's your favorite 1950s Hollywood star, and what movie from that era do you love the most? I'll draw a winner at random next Sunday. Void where prohibited. Best of luck!