You are your own props department

Here’s how the props department on the television series Treme recreated a vintage bottle of cognac to use in a scene: First they checked out the real deal on the Internet and then found and copied a label they liked. Then they sourced some empty bottles in an antique shop. Next, ‘we cleaned them up, and Joey mixed water and food coloring to get the right color. He found corks to put in the bottle and wax to put a seal on the top. We put it inside a box and then dusted it an aged it down.’ [sic] These words are from Luci Leary, Property Master on Treme, as told to Dave Walker of I found Walker’s article while researching the making of Treme (a television series written by David Simon, set in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans). The last thing I expected in reading a story about props in a fictional television series was to be inspired about writing long form non-fiction. But Walker (and the props team on Treme) got me to thinking.

Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.
Writers need to fill their props boxes along the way. Thanks to Natalie T for use of this image Props boxes under Creative Commons.

In as much as producing props and writing non-fiction are different there are similarities. We’re all recreating scenes and conveying character (and to this end, non-fiction writers are our own props departments). Writers are told to show, don’t tell but we can still both show and tell. Props departments can only show. That’s why they must attend to detail like the aging and dusting on a vintage cognac bottle. That’s a discipline we can learn from.

‘It’s important to us that it’s real, that it looks good, and it’s what it would be,’ says, Beau Harrison, Treme’s On Set Property Master. Verily his team breaks down every scene in a script says Walker. They create a list of the objects required then decide exactly what type of object it should be. Mobile phones for example, ‘We usually base this on the character's personality and economic standing,’ Harrison says.

The best non-fiction takes you into a story. It gives you just the right amount of detail; information that’s relevant to scene and character/s. The props team on Treme have the same job only they do the work in reverse. They must acquire objects (including personal effects) to help define their scenes and characters. And then they put all of those objects into a labeled box. Writers start with a page; with the more astute of us collecting detail (props information) about our characters and scenes along the way.

Photographs by Harrison show some of Treme’s props boxes. The character Antoine Batiste’s for example has his watch, sunglasses, keys, ID, iPod and other personal items spread across a table. Separated from the body of Wendell Pierce (who plays Batiste) these objects remind me of toys; of Barbie dolls, clothes and accessories I used to play with as a kid. Batiste may live real in my mind but in truth he’s a fiction and that’s where the work of props teams and long form non-fiction writers diverge.

As someone who spent just a few days in New Orleans over a decade ago, I find the depictions in Treme to be fairly convincing. From the series I’ve learnt a lot about the challenges the city faced in the wake of Katrina. I’ve learnt more about its culture – and things I didn’t know (like their second line parades). But I'm aware that Treme is a fiction, and that to others its fabrication might not be as convincing.

‘I know a real second line when I feel it,’ says Cheryl Austin in a news story on She makes the comment at a sale of the show’s props (following the filming of its final season). She’s a real-life resident of the real-life New Orleans suburb of Treme. She’s not a big fan of the show (any more than many doctors and nurses were fans of ER). To her it lacks authenticity.

‘Don’t make this stuff up!’ I can hear Lee Gutkind (editor of Creative nonfiction magazine) calling to us all. Indeed. The trick is to fill our props boxes as we research – one word at a time.

(Oh, and props to Dave Walker for writing an article that inspired all of this!)