October 28, 2016

When the Story Starts to Come Alive

By Shelly Frome

During the hiatus before the next project, I keep asking myself, what are you waiting for? I realize there are those who’ve made lists of bright ideas and simply devise an outline for the most promising notion. But that approach doesn’t excite my imagination or seem brimming with life. . 

And so, after sending off the corrected galley proofs for Murder Crosses the Pond, I’m trying to come to terms with the necessary ingredients. In the case of this last mystery, I began with Oliver, a young golden retriever, smashing through the doggie gate of a B&B, scampering up the trail to the high meadow, drawn by the squawks of wild turkeys and the curses of a stranger. I did so because I’m well acquainted with goldens and that spontaneous image seemed so full of promise. Soon enough, Emily, a tour guide emerged in my imagination finalizing her plans to shepherd three eccentric siblings to the far off moors of England. Then a few what-ifs? came to me. What if the fellow shouting was a front man for a rapacious development corporation out to turn the meadow into an upscale condo complex? What if the B&B was owned by Emily’s mom and the construction activity would ruin her way of life? And what if Emily’s mentor was head of the local Planning Commission who stands in the way of site approval and, as Emily overhears chasing after Oliver, has to be “taken care of”? 

It’s as if elements stored away in my subconscious were waiting to be released by something lively. I care about open space and once had a run-in with a large corporation threatening to turn a pristine preserve next door into a gated community. My late wife and I were taken on a private tour of Dartmoor and the west of England. And, most of all, Oliver’s spunky curiosity, like my own dogs, was bound to dig something up, some vital evidence perhaps, knock somebody down at the last minute, etc. This catalyst made the possibilities of provocative settings, folk tales, and the impossibility of Emily being in two places at once, colorful people I might meet along the way and all the rest of it begin to percolate.  

As Oliver’s imaginary antics set things in motion this time, a real life encounter on the streets of New York caused a previous effort to catch fire. It started while I was recalling James Dean’s haunts (the farm boy from Indiana before he got his big movie break). Here I was, walking the same mean streets, remembering my own days as a starving New York actor when I ran into a swarthy character in a sloppy sweatshirt who said, “I’m Johnny Diamonds and this is my territory.” Out of nowhere, a pre-teen popped up and said, “And I’m Johnny’s go-fer.” 

It wasn’t long before I gave her the name Angie, Johnny became a racketeer, and I couldn’t help wondering what a troubled Indiana farm boy named Jed, who looked a lot like James Dean, was doing here and what he was desperately seeking. In no time, I began doing research about organized crime in the Big Apple and a scenario for Murder Run began to unfold. 

What led me on, besides the fact that the provocative setting became a character and influenced everything, were the things I learned about Angie as long as I left her alone. And how, though she was at least twenty years younger than Jed, she had to look out for this fish-out- of- water and keep him from harm’s way.

Perhaps those times I was a starving actor and taught improv at the University has a lot to do with the way I work. I intuitively know if I try to second guess any of the characters they’ll freeze up on me. When I let them be, they prompt me in the most wonderful ways. 

It appears that all I have to do is trust my muse. In the famous words of Dickens’ Mister Micawber, “Something will turn up.” Or, taking a cue from West Side Story, “Something’s comin’. Around the corner or whistlin’ down the river.” And it will surely be worth the wait.        
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of crime novels and books on theater and film. He is also the film columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and a features writer for Gannett Media. His fiction includes Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Lilac Moon, Twilight of the Drifter, Tinseltown Riff and Murder Run.  His transatlantic mystery Murder Crosses the Pond will be released this fall. Among his works of non-fiction are The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. He lives in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

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