Monday, December 13, 2010

Stalking The Springboard For A Crime Novel

© Shelly Frome 2010 all rights reserved

Someone once told me that you don’t have the necessary ingredients of a good crime novel unless one of your basic assumptions is threatened or, at the very least, you have to come to terms with some facet of ongoing reality that’s really troubling you. The noted screenwriter and novelist William Goldman put it another way: “You write for revenge.”

Be that as it may, though it may have a lot to do with these pointers, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what sets me off. Take my antic, edgy Hollywood novel. While staying at the Avalon at the corner of Olympic and Beverly Drive doing research for my book on screenwriting, everyone behind the reception desk was quick to note they were really actors or would-be screenwriters; the waiters and waitresses told me they were actually undiscovered talent. In no time, a short walk up the street revealed a paunchy middle-aged man standing in front of Al’s outdoor news-stand yelling into his cell phone, “Listen to me, Harry! I’m telling you the me you think you know has breached the barricade. I’m gonna be taking a meeting, pitching a sure-fire idea for a vampire flick. I kid you not!” And this, as they say, is just for openers.

While all this was going on, despite the countless pipe dreams and illusions I encountered, there were signs that something approximating reality might be percolating beneath. At the park fronting the Santa Monica Pier, a shaggy-looking drifter in his early thirties was telling a well-tanned homeless man, “I tell you, you better watch out, you know? It’s going down tonight.” And though she was reluctant to talk about it, my sister, who has a home just off La Cienega and Orlando, had bars installed on her windows after someone hot-wired her car while it was parked in her driveway and drove away into the night. In addition, my mother’s house, about ten miles east, had been fitted with iron bars that were even more foreboding.

By then, imaginatively, the lines began to blur. While visiting a contact at an old vintage studio tucked away a few blocks south of Paramount , a police helicopter circled overhead while my wife and I were driven by a sound stage housing episodes of a low-grade TV cop show. Presently, our guide took us past weathered back lots—the façade of a western town, a crumbling moon walk, etc.--that seemed to be crying out to be brought back to life. Perhaps offering itself as an arena where tinsel and trouble could meet.

By then, something blowing in on the dry Santa Ana winds and a whimsical script doctor trying to shape a storyboard came into play. Call the writer Ben. As the tale opens, Ben is faced with turning his career around within the next few days or else. With this time-frame always in mind, Ben is willing to vie for any opportunity no matter how outlandish. This is definitely not just another day, all his assumptions of a dream that has to come true by the time he’s thirty have long since been shattered and he is unwittingly on a collision course with a great unknown. The title of the book also seemed to be self-generating: TINSELTOWN RIFF.

In contrast, the springboard for my currently released mystery THE TWINNING MURDERS is perhaps more accessible, the unfolding action more meaningful to a wider audience. But again, that’s not why I began developing the story. As it happens, I live in a quaint historic New England village. Recently an urban development corporation set up shop with a view toward clearing an expanse of meadow and upland that had been untouched for hundreds of years, a beautiful tract adjacent to our own property. The plan--turn it into a highly profitable 170-unit condo facility replete with recreation facilities. Moreover, only a few years beforehand, my wife and I were given a personal tour by an affable Southern lady through the west of England from Bath , to Devon and Cornwall . At almost the same time, we discovered we had a sister village in England when a coterie came to call as the beginnings of an exchange program. When the developers steamrolled their way through the local planning commission with scarcely any opposition, I found myself yet again at odds with the way of things. Taken into account the sister villages, an amiable woman who lives on the edge of the moors in Devon told me, “Dear, I think you’re conjuring up a twinning.”

As an incurable storyteller always asking myself what if?, soon enough an unwitting heroine began to appear in my imagination (a tour guide of course whose name suitably was Emily) along with an event that touched her deeply. In this case it was a surrogate father, environmentalist and head of the planning commission and the only obstacle in the way of the developers. As soon as he was dispatched by unseen hands and the powers that be kept dragging their heels, Emily was up against it on both sides of the pond. I allowed this character-driven as well as plot-driven venture to unfold because I had at least three vital ingredients: someone to care about, the ties that bind, and something vital at stake in the form of great wrongs that had to be put to rights.

Now I’m working on another tale, this one set in Mississippi driven by secret wrongs of the past and a failed journalist driven by inner and outer forces he doesn’t quite understand. Needless to say, without this troubling springboard, I have no compelling reason to go on. I don’t look for it, I don’t seek it out. From time to time, it just seems to be out there, waiting for me.

About the author:

Shelly Frome is a Professor Emeritus of dramatic arts at the University of Connecticut. A former professional actor and theater director, his writing credits include a number of national and international articles on acting and theater, profiles of artists and notable figures in the arts, books on theater and film and mystery novels.

His books include The Art and Craft of Screenwriting, Tinseltown Riff, Lilac Moon, The Actors Studio, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Playwriting: A Complete Guide to Creating Theater and his most recent, The Twinning Murders


s.w. vaughn said...

How interesting! I love hearing where ideas come from. And the concept of 'twinning' is very intriguing.

Thanks! :-)

Kim Smith said...

yes, very interesting indeed. if you need any flavor from Mississippi holler at me, I live down here :)

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Wonderful article, Shelly. Fascinating. I wish you the best of luck with your latest book - sounds great!