- 10 tips for getting on with your writing
I think most of us have days when we stare into space and can’t think of a single thing to write. Here are my top tips for getting on with it. There’s not anything really earth-shatteringly new here, just practical ideas to keep you—and me—writing. Some are obvious, some are simple, some are just coping mechanisms that have worked for me.
- Keep social media out of your work area. It’s so easy to ‘lose’ an hour or two just checking your emails or catching up with social media—and this is a really good one for disguising as work. But if you are a media junkie and know you spend too much time oohing and ahhing over other people’s cat pictures or searching for memes, do everything you can to keep internet availability to areas away from where you work. Keep your breaks short—just enough time to eat, drink, pee and then get back to work. (btw Eat, Drink, Pee is the little-known follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. Less successful because it lacks the strong spiritual appeal of the original.)
- Plan. Yes, even if like me, you are more of a pantser, when you struggle to move forward with your work, then leave yourself a couple of lines of notes that will give you a kick-start to begin your next writing session. I heard it suggested that a writer even breaks off in the middle of a crucial scene to create an easy pick-up point. However, if like me, you’re a bit forgetful, you might not find this idea too effective. Instead I prefer to scratch down a few lines in pencil, just to give myself a little push in the morning. (Not a morning person!) while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often have an idea in my head of where the story is going to go, but can forget some of this by the next day. This idea is a good one to avoid losing the plot—literally.
- Take a notebook everywhere. Yes, I know this is an obvious one for writers, but trust me, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to either abandon a brilliant idea or rush to buy a notebook when out and about. And trust me, notes written on a napkin in ketchup or eyebrow pencil aren’t so easy to read when you get home. You don’t have to take along a huge, heavy notebook, just a teeny one that fits into a pocket will be fine, so long as you always have something with you in case inspiration strikes. For me, any time I’m left alone to stare into space can be a good time to write—on the bus, train, waiting for the bus or train, waiting for loved ones to finish work or try on a dress… or you could get a note-making app on your tablet or phone, I like Evernote. I do a lot of my best writing in a caff with a cappuccino at my elbow. So before you leave the house, make sure you have a notebook and about six pens. Wallet? Check. Keys? Check. Notebook…?
- Count your words. This is really a coping mechanism for if you are going through a sticky patch. It’s really aimed at people who, like me, write longhand before they transfer work onto a device. Each morning, before you start work staring at the crack on the ceiling, count the previous day’s word total manually. Doing this will mean a) you get a quick overview of what you wrote yesterday and that will help you to get into writing mode, and b) you will feel encouraged to build on what you already have. This works for me when nothing else does, even if I end up discarding half or more of the previous day’s work.
- Break up the blank. This continues from the one above. If you sit and stare at the white page or screen in dismay and your brain refuses to create, try this:
- Do Step 4 as above.
- Then start each new page with the date and running word total in the top left corner.
- Number the pages bottom right.
- If you are using chapter headings or titles, write that too, or simply write chapter and the number.
You could also do Step 2 for this point, again to give yourself a little push.
- Change your routine. This is another one that works well for me. Try sitting somewhere different to your usual spot, give yourself a new viewpoint. Listen to different music—even music you hate can be useful. I used to sometimes sit in one of my children’s bedrooms when they were at school and listen to some of their music. Just changing your daily routine or habits can trick your brain into creating fresh words. Try getting up in the middle of the night, if you’re a morning person, or go out and write in the pub or the library or the park. Anything different is good and will help to lift you out of your slough of despond and help get rid of that wading-through-mud feeling.
- Revise. If you’re really stick, go back and look at your original premise for your WIP and see if there’s any aspect of your story you’ve missed, ignored or just plain not considered. Did you go down a blind alley? If you don’t have old notes to go back to, write down a couple of paragraphs of what you remember about getting the original idea for your story. How did it work out in your mind? How does that compare to what you have actually written so far? Try to see your story as a whole unit, like a ladder with rungs moving the story forward. What needs to happen to your characters to get the story to the next rung?
- Read. This is the easy one. I’m not advocating spending weeks and months reading hundreds of books, but just take some time out to read for half an hour or an hour. Refresh your mind, read some poetry, or a familiar favourite book. Again too, you could try something new and different that will get your creative juices flowing. If I’m writing fiction, I read a non-fiction, usually history.
- Write something else. So often I find the minute I start work on one story, I get ideas coming through for another. Usually it’s another story where I’ve already completed the first draft and am just subconsciously mulling it over. Try your hand at a short story or a haiku.
- Doodle. Make yourself some brain-storming cluster diagram. Put your key word—or your character name, or anything to do with your WIP, and then bring lots of lines out from the central idea and at the end of each line, write a word or phrase or idea that somehow relates to the key word. You can do this for every character, or every location or plot point etc. You can put down anything that is linked with your main character, or maybe just ideas that are only tentatively linked. You could sit and create a list of words from your title, or your character’s name. You could try Googling your character’s name and see what comes up—but don’t get side-tracked, it isn’t supposed to replace writing but to stimulate it. Try brain-storming something completely different, a colour or a sound that is relevant to your story, eg blue—then write all the things you can think of to do with ‘blue’: the colour of royalty; meaning sad or depressed; lapis lazuli used to be used to make the pigment blue for artists, and was more expensive than gold, so hence very little of it used in paintings, only for the special few key characters, which brings us back to royalty again; the Greeks had no colour for blue, and used the word for brass; the Bible says sometimes when you pray the ‘Heavens are as brass’; does that mean they are blue, or they are hard and impenetrable? Blue is a cold colour, blue is the colour for baby boys—but used to be the traditional colour for baby girls up until the early 1900s, then mysteriously it swapped, so did this result in confusion? Hopefully you see how this technique can generate ideas.
So those are my top tips. Hopefully if you do get stuck with your writing, or you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, one of these might help you to get back on track and find fresh and exciting ideas. Above all if you’re struggling with a particular idea or a specific part of your WIP, don’t panic. Do something else for a little while or try one of these ideas. You’ll soon get your mojo back.
- By the light of a candle’s flame
I’m a very image-driven person. I am inspired by music and the written or spoken word, yes, but nothing moves me to create more than an image. Sometimes if I’m stuck for ideas, I browse through Pixabay or through my own photo albums, virtual and paper. This is what I thought when I saw these images.
I look into the flame and see…
Candles. Flames. Bobbing gently, like stars reflected in a pond. Shining points. Barely moving. Warm. Sun-bright. Thinning the darkness and concentrating it; the surrounding darkness grows smaller, denser, darker, like turning on night instead of light. Two candles together, mirroring. Let there be light. Rasp of match. And there was light.
Worship the light, as your ancestors did, for when the light was gone, the herds moved away, the food was gone, the heat, the shelter. You lost everything because there was no light. Pleading with the gods for another spring, another dawn, for the sun to rise again and bring new hope.
Prometheus stole me to illuminate Bede, to shine upon Shakespeare’s moving quill. Does the flame recall their struggles with words, with pages? The artist slaving in his garret, with only a flame to light his way, his hands and pages covered in spent wax, the litter of the revelation.
The questor in the labyrinth. Lighting one step at a time, no more. You move ahead by faith alone. At any moment the light could be snatched from your grasp and where would you be? Alone, in the dark, where the minotaur prowls. You hear its step ever closer, its breath on your cheek in the gloom.
The flame bobbing and dancing shows the presence of evil in your room. We used to tell one another ghost stories by this small light. We decorated our cave walls with the shape of things our dreams told us. Superstition, hand in hand with creativity. Reaching forward as well as back through time. Immemorial time. When time began, there was the light, ready and waiting to draw you onward.
The light on a tomb or grave, don’t let them go into the dark and be forgotten. The candle of prayerfulness and sorrow, of all-night vigils at bedsides, of pain and fear, of inability to understand the endless cycle of night and day. No relief found in this golden glow. The candle of celebration has been blown out. The last one to leave, turn out the light.
Does the candle see me? Is the flame aware of those who cluster moth-close around? I’ve seen it all before. You aren’t the first, you won’t be the last, to be awestruck by my intangible beauty. Flame is eternal, the word is fleeting.
- Words and music
This week I’m underlining the link between music and the written word, mainly by the shameless use of other peoples’ words to prove my point.
Music and words have in common that they are both made of small separate parts that can be placed together in a variety of ways to produce a greater whole, one that reveals meaning and emotion to the listener or reader.
But it’s not only poetry that has a rhythm or musical, melodic features. Prose whether fiction or non-fiction makes use of rhythm and even tempo to draw in the reader, whether it be repeated use of phrases or words to prove a point in a speech or a polemic article or essay, or whether it is a deliberate use of stylistic elements to lull the reader into a certain mood or to create tension and dramatic emphasis.
But don’t take my word for it, let’s hear from some notable people much better equipped to comment than me.
Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent. Victor Hugo
Okay, true he has just unproved my point there but bear with me. He created a link between words and music and the emotional power each of them seek to demonstrate.
And those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music. Friedrich Nietzsche
We all dance to our own (unheard) music, at least, I hope we do, inside if not actual dancing. But I believe it’s true that as a reader it’s hard to completely capture the author’s vision, and as an author, it’s hard to put onto the page in concrete terms something you’ve only glimpsed in a dream. Not everyone will hear your music.
Most people die with their music still locked up inside them. Benjamin Disraeli
Don’t be one of these people! I think creative expression of all kinds can only enhance and beautify an otherwise difficult life. Reading—and listening to music—promotes good mental health, stimulates creativity, positivity, intelligence, compassion, socialisation and arguably conversation. So it’s a good thing to surround yourself with artistic endeavours and to enjoy them.
Here are a few more, in case you still need convincing. Read books, listen to music and prosper, as Mr Spock probably would have said if a writer had given him those lines.
It is always fatal to have music or poetry interrupted. George Eliot: Middlemarch
Poetry, plays, novels, music, they are the cry of the human spirit trying to understand itself and make sense of our world. Laura Malone Elliott: Annie Between the States
A fine work of art – music, dance, painting, story – has the power to silence the chatter in the mind and lift us to another place. Robert McKee: Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting
If you were music, I would listen to you ceaselessly, and my low spirits would brighten up. Anna Akhmatova: The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova
Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea. Mina Loy: The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy
- Writer’s Showcase: Caron Allan
This week I’m cheating yet again, as I’m reblogging a post about me from Christy Oslund’s website https://colliedogpress.wordpress.com
Take a look if you’ve got ten minutes to kill, it’s full of fascinating insights into authors’ lives and work.
And thank you, Christy, for taking the time, and for the great conversations. I appreciate it.
Genre: Mystery (Friendship Can Be Murder series), Romantic Historical Mystery (Dottie Manderson series).
Background: I wrote my first novel Ghosts! Ghosts! Ghosts! in 1970 and unfortunately it is now lost because my mum kept it in a drawer with my drawings, a knitted bookmark and a tea-cozy I made. I started reading adventures at age seven or eight and was reading Agatha Christie by age nine. [Eventually] I remember sitting on my bed in Aldershot, Hampshire, UK, and thinking, I want to write a new story, but what shall I write about? Then I thought, what is it I am afraid of?
Writing Highlight: I had to overcome [close] people telling me that a) I was no good as a writer, b) it was wicked thing to want to write fiction, and c) who did I think I was anyway, thinking I could be a writer? So…
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- Gold or silver?
I found these notes in an old journal. I had been pondering the attributes, from a writer’s point of view, of gold and silver, and how whether as metal or colour, they are portrayed in literary works.
Gold is the colour of royalty, of quality, of the authorised, and acknowledged, of states and state, religions and churches and faiths, of the accepted and acceptable, of righteousness.
Gold is pure, incorruptible, reliable, ‘pure gold’, good, honest and forthright.
Gold is given in blessing and to enrich, it is security, savings and wealth. Gold is warm and appealing. It is masculine, and constant; the colour of the noonday sun, giving life to all and sight to all. The ‘gold standard’ indicates a status achieved, a level of existence and compliance, of regularity and trust, and a line by which all else is measured. Gold is laid up for the righteous, we are told.
But silver? No. Silver is ‘other’. Silver is secretive and fleeting, it is mercurial and unremarkable in nature, and always not quite good enough: doomed to be second best. It changes hands easily, each time serving or claiming a new master.
Silver works its arts by night, it is hard, feminine and bright and although it’s the colour of small change, ready money, the easily-obtained (for some people, anyway), it really is a confidence trickster: appearing cheap and easy to get, but actually constantly demanding more from us, just that little bit beyond our grasp.
It is the colour of the stars and the light of the moon, alluring, beautiful, cold. Silvery and secret, sinister and elusive, it dances through the sky, always out of reach, now hidden, now displayed. The thirty pieces of silver, the betrayer’s coin, the turner of hearts and souls, the illicit, the unauthorised, the denied, or the denier.
These gorgeous images from Steve Bidmead, Arek Socha, Kevin Schneider and Patricia Alexandre, all at Pixabay.com
- Working on the WIP
WIP stands for Work In Progress. What we really should call works in progress is WIFITDSE. I know that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, though. It stands for: Work I Frequently Interrupt To Do Something Else. I know I’m not the only guilty one here…
And what I’m talking about here is not wandering off and doing something totally different. I’m not talking about attending to long-forgotten chores to act as displacement activity, or your basic everyday procrastination. I’m talking about legitimate stuff that still somehow gets in the way. Research. Plotting. Blogging. And of course, everyone’s favourite: social media. (Because as we all know, networking and promo is soooo important, right?)
With my current WIP, oh it’s been so hard to just sit down and get on with it. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is I’m a bit of an anti-planner. If I plan my book in detail, then something in me just throws its pen and paper down, folds its arms and says, ‘Well, I don’t wanna…’
I do plan—a bit—I know roughly who is going to get snuffed out, and I know roughly who will make that happen. With my Dottie Manderson series, I already know the vaguest outline of the next five books, even though I’m beginning to realise I won’t release some of them for another three years. I know the main theme of each book, the things that will happen to my main character, Dottie. That’s all there in my head. I just don’t have any details.
But some writers I know—quite a few actually—have a chart or a big page or something, all spread out and every chapter documented with who does what, who says what, what happened when they were all having breakfast, that kind of thing. Every page of every chapter is meticulously planned and positioned in the story. They use words like Story Arc and Resolution of Sub-plot.
I don’t do that.
I have a few snatches of conversation in my head, as if overheard from another room, and possibly a couple of facial expressions, and a random mental image of an object. This is all often scrawled on the back of an old fag packet or old envelope then stapled into a notebook. I have sticky notes all over the place, all different colours. But where some (organised, smart) people might have a different colour for a different kind of note, mine are completely random and it’s just a case of whatever I could put my hand on at the time I needed to make the note. During the course of the first draft I scribble a list of characters, their names, ages, occupations, and the only reason I do that is because I get confused by the ‘Mrs X said to Mr X, “I wonder if Mr X has seen Ms X?” I imagine you can see how that might get messy. But it’s my mess, and it’s how I work.
So I’m not really a planner.
And you don’t have to be either, if that’s not your bag, baby. One approach/size does not fit all. Find your method as well as your voice, and if it works for you, stick with it. This is my method, if it warrants such a name, I kicked against it, tried to fit into the popular writing systems and methods that works for thousands of others, and for me they did not work. So I am a big advocate of the ‘go your own way’ method: find the method that works for you. Stick with it, believe in yourself, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong.
- I’ve heard that name before…
“That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.
Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a story Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind. Amy Harper and Kym Morris from The Silent Woman. (Both novels still lying fallow!) These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening piece came to me in a flash, and I had to run to a stationer’s to buy a notebook to write it down before I forgot it. (Now I just put it into a note app on my phone! Ah technology, I love you so much.)
At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.
But it doesn’t always work out like that. I can spend hours, days even, agonising over the right name for a character. There are times when I have delayed starting a new story because I can’t seem to find the right name for my protagonist. though equally, when I am writing a first draft, I sometimes can’t remember the names I’ve already given my characters. I have even written several thousand words with varying numbers of capital XXXXs to denote each character, just to avoid abandoning the story and messing up the flow’. But it can get confusing. In these circumstances I often have to write long explanatory notes to myself of who the person is, as well as the XXXXXXs. there’s usually a Mr XX, a Miss XXX and a Jeffrey X, so it gets a bit muddled. But it does help me keep writing.
However, I can’t always trust myself when a name does just spring into my head. Like the time I wanted to call my main character Ben, then I needed to give him a surname. Sherman. Hmm, I thought, Ben Sherman sounds really good. It’s as if those two names were meant to go together somehow. What a great, natural-sounding name for a character, I thought. It sounds just like a real person. Too often I hear people moan, ‘No one would be called that, it’s not a name anyone would really be called.’ So I told my daughter about my new hero Ben Sherman. She rolled her eyes heavenward in what can only be described as her ‘For God’s sake, Mother!” expression. Turns out there’s already a real person/ designer with that name. I was right, it did sound just like a real person. Oh well. Back to the book of baby names again.
Names can be absorbed by osmosis from society and culture and we don’t always know where they’ve come from. I usually check my friends’ names on Facebook or for authors on Amazon to be ‘on the safe side’. I had also written five chapters of the Miss Beckett story before I realised that two of the main characters were named Meredith and Edith. Edith had to become Sheila. You need to keep the names quite dissimilar to avoid confusion, unless that is germane to your plot. Never feature Jack Peters and a Peter Jackson in the same book. (I’ve known it happen, and the confusion accidentally created by the author seriously impacts on the enjoyment of the story! You can’t suspend belief if you’re trying to remember who is who.)
Names go through trends. So if you’re writing historical fiction, don’t give your character a modern name. If in doubt, turn to a census of the time for ‘in’ names or look to the royalty of the day. Equally if you’re writing modern stuff, don’t give young characters the names of your parents’ generation, few little ones these days or for the past 20 or 30 years have been called Barbara, Sandra, Hazel, Nigel, Richard, etc. They have a slightly ‘previous generation’ sound to them. However, go back a bit further to the grandparents’ generation and you’ll hit all the names that are now so ‘in’: Jack, Alice, Freddy, George, and so on. I hope in the next generation after this one, my name will be back in again!
When it came to creating character names, Dickens was a master. He used names to ridicule his characters, to reveal societal trends and attitudes, and to denote characteristics or personalities. Think of Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild in Hard Times, think of Uriah Heep, Mr Cheeryble, Squeers. He also used another technique that is still useful for writers today. He used to take names that were ordinary and just slightly change them, creating something different and yet somehow familiar. Thus Philip became Chilip.
Think of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games heroine, Katniss Everdeen, think of Margaret Attwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale – the woman Offred was the ‘property’ of Fred. Also for fabulous names it is impossible to beat Alistair Reynolds’ Pushing Ice character, Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird. So don’t be afraid to play around with names and have fun. Changing one letter or the order of the letters can make a world of difference, and this works so well with Sci-fi or Fantasy character names. Maybe Isaac can become Istac or Casai, Sophie can be Phosie, Mary can become Maare, John could become Hjon, Dohn, Joon.
In creating fiction, you are creating a whole world, so a few names is not much more of a stretch. Just make sure they are not the names of a successful designer.
- My protagonist and me
There is a convention, some say a misconception, that writers base their main character–their protagonist–on themselves. Not me, of course.
I’m nothing like, for example, the main character in my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, Cressida Barker-Powell.
Nothing like her.
She lives in a massive house–we could justifiably call it a mansion, it cost millions, with a husband worth at least another couple of million. Cressida also has a lady who comes in and ‘does’, whilst I have to wash my own dishes, and heat up my own baked beans.
Cressida wears designer clothes, has accessories to match; she goes to dinner and cocktail-parties in smart restaurants; weekends in posh houses; pops off to London for a few days’ shopping, or nips to an exclusive spa for some ‘me time’. Whereas the highlight of my social calendar is going to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.
And–lest we forget–she kills people. Not just one. And not by accident. She deliberately plots and plans and obsesses over multiple murders in a vicious and calculating manner. I never so much as step on a woodlouse if I can avoid it. And if I do–well there are tears, self-blame, and a very charming funeral for all its friends.
And yet …
It was me who researched those murders. I put the ideas into her fictional head. I wrote the words that come from her perfectly-lipsticked mouth. I chose her designer outfits, her bags, her shoes. When she complains about people who annoy her in some way, her impatience is mine, her anger, even her acerbic wit is mine. I even placed her victims in their lives, specially to annoy her.
So when, in those rare and tender moments, she does something nice for a change, that’s me too, isn’t it? (It doesn’t happen often.)
I tried. I had hoped to succeed–at least in part–in making her so, so different to me. Some of her views and attitudes and certainly her experiences and lifestyle are different to mine. But differences can be positive as well as negative. I would never–I hope–kill anything or anyone, but part of me can’t help but admire her decisive (if somewhat ‘final’) method of dealing with things and people she is unhappy about, or her willingness to exact her cold revenge for the sake of people she cares about (those few, few people!) whereas I am very passive, and I agonise and fret and usually fail to act.
It’s quite cathartic sometimes to allow her to do those things I choose not to do. To be able to do the unthinkable, the immoral, to do exactly as she pleases. It’s the kind of vicarious pleasure we get from watching box-sets of evil people doing terrible things and willing them to get away with it.
But she’s nothing like me. Let’s be clear, she is a monster, but she is bold and decisive, and she takes action in ways I never could. She’s nothing like me. She’s not me.
She’s more like my big sister.
(warning: these books contain terribly naughty words and graphic scenes.)
- How to fail at book marketing
I’m trying something new this week. I’ve never reblogged a blog post before, and I’ve never had anyone else write for me before, but when I read this blog post on Emma’s site today, it exactly chimed with how I’ve been feeling this week about my own self-publishing and social media adventures.
Emma Baird is someone I count as a good friend – she writes completely different stuff to me, and it is really good stuff. If you love romance, humorous writing, quirky ideas and Scottish settings, then you should definitely read her books. NOW!
Writing and publishing is the gentle 5k run bit. Selling is the marathon. Scrap that, it’s an ultra marathon. That horrible hard one people run in the African desert where most participants drop out long before the finish.
Anyway, here are the bits of branding and marketing I’ve made a spectacular mess of…
Self-promotion via social media
It’s free! You can reach thousands, no tens of thousands of people.
In theory, yes, if you’ve managed to add tonnes of folks to your platforms. And your skin is thick enough not to cringe when you upload yet another self-promotional post. You guys!!!! So EXCITED for you!!!! My book is out next week. Pre-order now. You guys are the BEST. XXXX
And seeing as millions…
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- A bit of colour in your cheeks: 1930s make-up
Make-up in the 1930s was gradually moving away from the secretive, rather apologetic attitudes of the 1920s and earlier which kept make-up containers such as compacts small and discreet, in much the same way as women’s smoking accoutrements. Partly this new acceptance was to do with the trend for more a feminine look after the androgynous 20s, but it was also due to the burgeoning movie industry and the new passion for celebrity role models, and the aspiration to adopt Hollywood styles and trends as part of everyday life, even for those on low incomes. You might see a certain dress or hat in a film, and a week later your friend, sister, mother or yourself could have copied it at home to create your own variation to wear on your half-day out or the next time you went to the cinema.
The cosmetics companies lost no time in showing the everyday woman how to use their products to achieve the same looks, or an approximation of them, as the big screen icons such as Myrna Loy, Barabara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, whose glamour was so appealing to women – and of course to men, which was a big part of the thrill.
In 1937, Myrna Loy was featured by Photoplay magazine in a kind of cross-over promotion with Max Factor, sporting her face with a clever ad for her latest film Parnell, in which she appeared with Hollywood megastar Clark Gable, whilst her photograph lent authority and appeared to endorse the products being promoted, no doubt sending her fans out in droves to buy the make-up ‘used by Myrna’.
The typical look was for pale foundation, with pink ‘roses’ on the cheeks. Eyebrows were very arched, and plucked extremely thinly, or even completely removed then pencilled-in in a much higher bow than nature intended. The eyes were emphasised with deep colour–blues, greens and mauves were popular–on the lids and highlighter or shimmer on the under-brow area. Lips were painted in a range of tones, mainly deep pinks, reds and oranges.
It’s a surprisingly colourful palette, and the products were manufactured by many of the big brand names we still know today such as Revlon, Max Factor, Coty, Almay, and Maybelline, not forgetting our own dear Boots No. 7 which first appeared in 1935! Helena Rubenstein created the first waterproof mascara in 1939. Cream eye-shadows, lip ‘glosses’, and ‘pancake’ make-up also appeared in the 1930s. It was an exciting time to be a girl! Make-up like face creams and powders were mostly sold in glass or china pots, or for cheaper brands, or the lighter products such as eye-shadows and lip-sticks, in sturdy, decorated cardboard boxes or in tin or plastic.
Here’s an extract from the sales pitch for Max Factor: ‘Choose your colour harmony shade in Max Factor’s Face Powder and see how naturally the colour enlivens the beauty of your skin.’ It sounds so similar to the kind of advertising copy we read or hear today, doesn’t it?
Sales were booming. The new advances in chemicals and manufacturing processes helped to pave the way for a wider use of make-up, especially among younger women who worked in factories and had their own money. Prices came down and demand went up. Glamourdaze.com quotes the Daily Mail as asserting that ‘In 1931, 1,500 lipsticks were being sold to women for every 1 being sold in 1921.’ How true that is I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were fairly accurate. Affordability, economics, a decade of peace, industrial progress, and women having jobs, their own money and more autonomy all must have combined to create the perfect climate for a boom in make-up alongside other new consumer goods such as clothing, accessories, household appliances and even cars.
In the image above, you can see a lovely vintage Coty powder compact. The design was by Lalique, the famous glass guy. I sold one of these on eBay for a nice little sum a few years ago! Coty started in 1904 and Lalique set up his first glass ware and design business in 1921. This gorgeous powder puff motif is still highly collectable, though affordable, and is still in the very small size compact that was normal for the 1920s – a little over two inches in diameter. A tiny thing of great beauty. You can find them quite easily on the Internet, sometimes still with a little powder inside, and usually with an applicator or sponge. But beware, there are replicas about. They are easy to spot, being much larger–the kind of size we usually see now of about three and a half inches or more–plus shallower, and the design is more precise and detailed.
So make-up, then as now, really did depend on who you wanted to be, and just as in the fashion world, the designers followed trends very closely, with lower priced brands following after the big leagues, and with everyone keeping an eye on their favourite celebs.