August 4, 2017

Where Stories Come From: HOLLYWOOD MYSTERY - In The Frame

(Revised 03/09/2024) 

I know, it's been a while since I've least, on this blog. (And I'll have my usual online appearance roundabout post out this weekend), but I thought it would be a great idea to launch into an explanation of how my latest published tale, "In the Frame" for ProSe Productions' Hollywood Mystery anthology, came to pass.

TL; DR - It's all Tommy Hancock's fault.

(OK, let me get one thing off my chest - people who use TL; DR should be shot. It's pretentious, pandering, and disrespectful because instead of getting to the point, they're choosing to lecture you....then summarize why they're lecturing you. But I digress...)

After "Cowboy of the Dakotas" was published in Pulpternative (still available for your reading pleasure), I had a great idea for a story. What if, after a disfiguring accident in 1918, Harold Lloyd decided to quit movies....and become a private eye? With the nascent idea for "Harold Lloyd: Private Investigator" ready for Pulpternative, Vol 2, I had encountered Tommy (head of Pro Se Productions, and the best editor I've ever worked with) at Windy City Pulp Con, and he had indicated a desire for stories for Hollywood Mystery So I gave him the best pitch I ever gave in my life...

…and he said "No".

As Tommy explained, Hollywood Mystery was focused on film stars who stumbled upon mysteries....but had to be realistic. So unless Harold Lloyd was a private detective...I needed to focus elsewhere.

So that weekend, I embarked on my quest to build out the idea....and ended up watching Buster Keaton's The General with The Rocketeer movie soundtrack playing in the background. And then, inspiration hit: Keaton, Lloyd, and Chaplin were always seen as the big three of silent comedy. Chaplin was a well-known why wouldn't Keaton & Lloyd have some friendship? Or partnership?

It also helped that I was reading a book called Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood about the murder of William Desmond Taylor. It was one of the great mysteries of the silent movie age...and Hollywood during that particular period (1910s - 1920s) had a particularly sordid reputation. As I plotted the piece, I had ideas for two set pieces: Harold Lloyd scaling a building (shades of Safety Last!!) and Buster Keaton in a fistfight.

So hence, the research - checking out the three-part Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius on YouTube and several Buster Keaton documentaries....both of which proved fascinating. Keaton's childhood spent in vaudeville as a knockabout comedian (and yes, that means precisely what you think it means) meant that I had enough for a slightly comic - yet accurate - fight. (His home life and relationship with controversial figures also made him the ideal POV character). Harold Lloyd was a tougher character to get my head around...but I ended up thinking of him as the "straight man." So the planned climbing sequence....had to go. It wasn't a darling (as in "kill your darlings", and I won't open that can of worms again), but it created a more streamlined story...that had a slightly wicked sense of humor.

All I needed to do was find an appropriate year for Keaton & Lloyd to not be making movies (via each man's filmography), find an appropriate moment for them to work together (1925, when MGM was formed), and....start with their project being scrapped.

From there, it was a simple tale of a director being poisoned (thanks to a recent reading of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York), and the resultant investigation. Of course, dealing with early 20th-century Hollywood, I had to deal with issues around race and sexual orientation...

...and here's where this gets a bit problematic.

I knew there were two six-letter words that I could have the investigating police officer say in the context of a certain scene. (Big hint: using one of them on-air got Bill Maher in trouble). However, as a white heterosexual male, I don't believe that I have the right to use those words, even in fiction. Other authors will disagree, citing Faulkner's quote about the only responsibility an artist has is to his work...but I didn't feel comfortable using either one. But I did not want to have him use slurs...

So that meant researching obscure racial and sexual slurs for one particular character to use. Was it right? I don't know. But I also wanted to use slurs that sounded (to a 20th-century ear, at least) awkward and idiotic. This way, the character in question would automatically be seen as not just problematic....but also lacking intelligence. Did I do it perfectly? Probably not, but at some point, I needed to address an obvious elephant in the room....and it also helped me grow a wee bit as a writer.
But all in all, "In the Frame" (which started as "The Badger Game") is a story that I'm proud to have written. Mixing humor and pulp action with one key sequence that has (at least, in my head) an exceptional punch line, I'm proud of how this story turned out. 

Think of it as the natural successor to "Cowboy of the Dakotas", except with more jokes. And you can purchase via my Amazon author page.

No comments: