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Michael Thompkins
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Shelly Frome Returns on the Writer's Art: the "What-if?"

by Michael 2/18/2011 8:50:00 AM

 And here's a new article by an old friend, fellow writer, and New Englander Shelly Frome about the by now classic in the Art of Writing--the "What-if?"  Shelly's bio can be found in the archive under Shrinking Character--Shrinking Fiction: Meet Shelly Frome.

Stalking the springboard for a crime novel  by Shelly Frome

            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 the aforementioned comments, 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.





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