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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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mystery

So, I wrote a thriller screenplay…..

……while working towards my Bachelor’s degree, lo these many years ago. It was in response to the many films that featured violence against women. It’s a tiresome trope, in my opinion, even when the woman fights back and comes out on top. I mean, really, is that actual agency for a female character in a story? Or for women in real life? Can’t women just be pivotal in a film or story without having it be in response to violence acted against them?

These questions were at the forefront of my mind as I wrote it over a three month period. I did a lot of research in terms of criminology and came up with some interesting ideas, which I then incorporated into the main story. Clues and plot points and red herrings were extremely important to keep track of, as I didn’t want to give away the reveal too early, while setting it up in a subtle and sensible way.

Several male characters were victimized in the same way women had been, both in film and in real life. The female characters had agency and their purpose was not tied to experiences personal to them. One character I knew early on to be the perpetrator of the crimes that take place in the script, but a reader had indicated that it was too obvious. So, I went back in and made a secondary character already in the story not only the perpetrator of the crimes, but also the accomplice of the first character. Now I suspect that there is yet a third character tied to the first two, and I’m curious to explore that.

The funny thing about being a writer is that you never stop working on a project, no matter how done with it you think you are. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with the screenplay, but I attribute that to my own lack of knowledge in forensics and police work (hint: more research to be done here. Yay!). Also, It needed some strategic re-working in several places, which I hadn’t done due to several moves and a return to school for an MFA.

Then it occurred to me, not too long ago, that it needs to be re-written in novel form, a challenge that is exciting for me. Why? Because, despite the incredibly dark themes explored within the context of the story, I had a lot of fun writing it.

Being creative through the arts is about exploring and analyzing and expressing all facets of our experiences, from the light and beautiful to the dark and sinister. It is a safe way to express feelings and thoughts that don’t ordinarily get a voice. Music, painting, writing, poetry, dance – whatever the art form, what feels silenced can be heard.

I haven’t begun working on adapting the thriller screenplay into novel form, yet, but it’s definitely on my work plate. The twist at the end had grown to a double twist and now I suspect that there’s a third twist yet to come.

That’s exciting to me. Do you have a project that’s been teasing you, mocking you, daring you to come back and re-work what you’ve started?

If you do, go forth and re-make that creative project into the art it demands to be.

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So, I first encountered Sherlock Holmes……

……..at the age of six, via an old black and white movie on Channel 5, starring Basil Rathbone as the famous detective and Nigel Bruce as his foil and confidant. I don’t recall the movie itself, just that it was black and white and the literary dynamic duo were off on a mystery to solve, but I was hooked. I mean, seriously hooked.

By the age of ten, I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles at least twice. I don’t know what happened to that copy – I probably read it to pieces. I had so many different copies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and short stories by various publishers that they were contained in one box. This includes the YA books that are similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure, but it’s basically Solve Your Own Mystery with Sherlock Holmes.

I’d seen Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Frank Langella, Nicholas Rowe and Jeremy Brett play the iconic detective. I loved each interpretation, unique to the actor bringing their vision of Holmes to life.

How big of a fan am I of Sherlock Holmes? Well, there’s this picture of myself and friends from high school on Halloween:

Vampire, monkey, Marilyn Monroe & Sherlock Holmes (me).
Vampire, monkey, Marilyn Monroe & Sherlock Holmes on the case.

I still own the deerstalker hat:

The infamous deerstalker hat.
The infamous deerstalker hat.

And I’m fulfilling a childhood dream of learning how to play the violin:

Still waiting patiently, the violin waits.
Patiently, the violin waits.

Watching Elementary (ABC) and Sherlock (BBC) with their modern interpretations of Holmes is both fun and interesting. Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, allow the stories to develop over a 22 episode season, while Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, have three ninety minute movies that are packed with detail and nuance. Both shows are worth watching over again, as there is always some detail one misses on the initial viewing, such as a bit of dialogue here or a visual there.

Robert Downey, Jr. brings Sherlock Holmes to life in the 19th century, haunting the foggy streets of London by hansom cab. Sir Ian McKellen, meantime, brings him into the 20th century as an older version of himself, fighting against memory loss and seeking to retain his own dignity.

I’m always intrigued by the various interpretations of this Victorian detective and how he has transcended that era to influence generations of readers, writers and more with his ability to deduce from the barest details the solution to any case presented to him.

I suspect there’s more to mull over on the subject of Sherlock Holmes, but deduce that it will take more than just one blog post to cover it.

 

Recommended:
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Stories & Novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Mr. Holmes (2015) starring Ian McKellen
Teller of Tales: a biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

So, I’m working on my Current Novel in Progress…..

……and overall, it’s a fun story to write. There’s ghosts, a woman who can talk to them and she works in cemeteries and there’s a mystery to solve and, of course, vampires. Not the sexy, tortured hero kind of vampire – I don’t find the Undead particularly sexy or heroic. As far as I’m concerned, they’re animated corpses, just one step above being a zombie while retaining most of their former personalities. The vampires in my story are not nice, not heroic and certainly not sexy. They’re cold, predatory and, in some cases, insane. Major life to Undead changes can do that to a person.

The Narrator/Main Character of the story is fully aware of that danger – she wears a silver crucifix that was instrumental in her first encounter with a vampire. Her favorite type of stake is one made from ash. She sees their predatory nature and has little faith in the truthfulness of their words until her own research or outside evidence corroborates them. Vampires are of the past, living beyond their historical time period. Interestingly, they are also leading her to uncover the secrets of her own personal history.

So, while I’m not a fan of vampires as the sexy, tortured hero, they do have a place in the telling of a story. They are, like ghosts, a metaphor – unseen, unheard voices (ghosts) and the walking, talking voices of the past (vampires) – and that’s just one interpretation on those two types of supernatural characters. There are as many different points of view on this as there are writers, and that’s pretty exciting. I’m well aware that there are readers and writers who love vampires as the hero and that’s all good – I’m just not one of them*.

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*(There are, however, some vampire characters that I do like, because of their complexity and interesting development – Angel, Spike, Dracula, Drusilla. Please note that Joss Whedon created three of them.)

 

So, the final curtain looms…..

……as my show enters its last weekend. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur and it seems inconceivable that there are only three performances left. Each performance led to something new in my character, a discovery of her humanity and motives. Although it’s not written in the script, I felt an underlying sense of guilt and fear that drove her to her final destination. There were specific lines that alluded to her distress, but the nature of her personality drove others away from her, a self-defensive measure on her part.

This show, The Mousetrap as written by Dame Agatha Christie (adapted from her short story Three Blind Mice, which in itself is adapted from the radio play written in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday), premiered in London in 1952. It has continued to play in front of audiences, celebrating its 64th anniversary this year in the same theater.

It has been a privilege and a joy to work with my fellow cast mates, who have provided a lot of support and laughter in the last few weeks. I am grateful to my director, for casting me in this part, for reasons I mention in a previous post. I had the best stage manager and costumer and producer to help shape, guide and fashion us into a wonderful presentation.

For their privacy, I will not identify them or post their pictures – I feel I need to ask their permission.

But I will leave you with a photograph of our set, where we played out our parts and made our discoveries and connections, both within the context of the play as our characters and outside the play, as actors, as friends, as comrades in arms.

The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.
The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.

So, I recently got cast in a show……..

…….which I’m terribly excited about. I had stage-managed this same show about twenty some years ago, and had convinced my director then to allow me to be the shadowy killer so as to maintain the air of Whodunnit. The play in question is a mystery, there’s a juicy murder or two, a cast of suspicious characters and, of course, the Reveal. This is another form of collaborative creativity – by working with other actors, director and stage crew, you enter another world and invite the audience to join you.

Acting, like writing or music or dance or any other artistic expression, is hard work, whether it’s on stage or on film. It requires discipline just as much as talent. An actor learns about the craft through reading of scripts, observing other actors work, and taking classes to enhance their skills, ranging from accents to stage combat.

As with writing, I’m always asking myself questions. In this instance, why did my character arrive at this particular destination? Was it tied to the past? Was it a meeting place? There was an incident that involved my character years earlier – did present circumstances come about because of guilt from a tragic decision? This is the behind the scenes work that goes into each role that is seen onstage. If done well, it looks easy. If done poorly, it looks not so good. 

Is there a fun part to all of this work? That’s simple – yes. The fun part is working with one’s fellow actors and discovering the relationships the characters have with each other. The fun is finding the rhythm of the play both as an individual actor and as a group. The fun is feeling that energy as it is shared with the audience, which is then bounced back to the actors. The fun is knowing that, for two hours, you took a risk and performed live in front of people you know and people you don’t.

The fun is living as someone else, with their history riding inside you.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

So, this little mystery of mine…..

……seems to have evolved into a quest. Quests mean travel, which requires planning and budgeting. Now that I’m back from Ireland, getting a sense of the country my great-great grandparents had emigrated from, the time has come to map out my next move.

This means, of course, I have to re-think my approach to this wonderfully tangled puzzle.

In other words, what would Sherlock Holmes do?

Very simply, he would take what verified facts he had, categorize the ephemeral ones in order of importance before either eliminating or verifying them, then follow the threads on a chase to see what resulted. Whatever remains, he believed (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote), no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

The game is afoot!

With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.
With deerstalker cap firmly in place, I take up the mystery with Holmes as inspiration.

So, it seems I have a mystery on my hands……

……about my great-grandfather, his three (yes, three) different birth years, the lack of a birth certificate from the state he was (allegedly) born in or any record of his parents in the same area. What information I have at hand comes from his diaries (beginning in 1902 and skipping to 1912), a death certificate, family lore and some historical references (my great-grandfather was something of a mover and a shaker in his day). Everything prior to 1900 is obscured in the shadows of time, lack of personal diaries and any connections to his siblings. I don’t even know their descendants or when my great-great-grandparents died or even where they are buried.

The information, as I’ve mentioned in another blog post, is sketchy at best. I have a death certificate for my great-grandfather (to be referred to as E.J. from now on), which has his parents names and general location of where they were born. I have good pieces of information, but I’m unable to fit them together and make a complete picture of the man who was such a strong influence in local events. He died years before I was born, so I have no memory of him, but his diaries make it clear that I would have enjoyed his dry wit.

He left home at a young age and for all intents and purposes, it seems he never looked back. He didn’t forget his past, but he didn’t seem to dwell on it, either. A lesson, I suppose, we should all embrace. But I want to know him, to know his history, his parents, his siblings. I’m very lucky – I know where most branches of my family came from, who they were and where they’ve been.

E.J. is an enigma, a mystery, a man who came out of the mists, almost as if he was born the day he left home and moved west.

I have a mystery on my hands. I have few leads and they only seem to lead to more mysteries. It is time to put on my deerstalker cap and think like the man who literally invented the forensic sciences over a century ago with the creation of the world’s most famous fictional detective.

It’s time to ask myself “What would Sherlock do?” and use his methods of elimination to find my answers.

Because what will be left, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

So, I recently had the chance to see The Maltese Falcon (1941)……

……….where it should be seen to be truly enjoyed – on the big screen and starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor. Based on the 1929 Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, the film follows the four as they race to get the legendary and valuable bird created as a gift by the Knights Templar of Malta in 1539.
At the end, Spade and Detective Polhaus have this bit of dialogue:

“Heavy. What is it?” Detective Polhaus
“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.” Sam Spade

Spade’s final line in the movie resonated with me, stayed with me for a couple of days. For me, the film wasn’t just a noir mystery shrouded in murder, greed and sex, it was a metaphor for being creative. The falcon is the seed and the inspiration. All the intrigue that follows in the 20th century with Sam Spade is a result of the bird being created as a gift in the 16th century.
You have an idea (the falcon). Through trial and error and self-doubt and perseverance (Spade and villains), you create the final product (book/film/song/etc.). What motivates you to create something? What drives you to pursue it to the end?
As a writer, I am constantly asking myself questions while working on a project, whether it’s a novel or a script. This is especially true when I get stuck and I do get stuck. A lot. Years ago, I took a journalism class and, while I ultimately chose to not pursue the profession, I did learn something incredibly valuable and helpful to my creative writing.
The five W’s and one H. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

Surprisingly, this is also helpful for when I’m drawing.

Back to the Falcon and Sam Spade’s classic final words. At the end of the movie, Polhaus has picked up the bird, which has been revealed to be a fake. He is surprised at how heavy it is for such a small statue. Spade’s words, while seeming to be positive, actually mean the opposite – the falcon symbolizes false hopes and broken dreams.

How is this about being creative? Because what we perceive to be false hopes and broken dreams are often redirecting us to look at the situation or project with a different perspective.
Who is this for, at the end of the day? Who do you need to satisfy first and foremost? Yourself.
Why is this important? Because it’s an expression of the self.
What is it about? What does it mean? Creative work means something different to the creator than it does to the viewer.
Where is this creative muse/inspiration? Everywhere you look, there’s a story, photograph, a work of art.
When do you do it? Right now would be a good time.

Recommended Reading/Viewing:
The Maltese Falcon (novel-1929) Dashiell Hammett
The Maltese Falcon (film-1941)
On Writing (2000; anniversary edition 2010) Stephen King

*****
Editor’s Note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal VC

Excerpt: Secrets & Howls: A Wolf’s Head Bay Mystery

 

From the Prologue:

Her skin prickled and she stopped, alert.

Whoever was watching her was back. Or he’d never left. She suspected the latter – the sensations were so strong that she instinctively knew he was still around. Gripping her keys, she turned in a slow circle, her eyes touching on every shape, muscles tense, aware of the scents carried on the ocean breeze. From the center of town, she could hear the post office tower’s bell chime out the hour.

He was close – she could feel it. The question was, where would he come from?

The attack, when it came, was sudden – her body’s instinctive reflexes were faster than her mind and she ducked just in time to miss the swinging, clawed fist.

He roared, furious. She leapt back, dropping her purse, her breath coming in sharp rasps.

He was new to this – it was obvious from the way he carried himself. But new or not, if she wasn’t careful, he may just take her by sheer brute force.

She intended to take him down first.

They circled each other – Holly hoped that something or someone would distract him long enough so that she could gain a better advantage, but she didn’t rely on it happening. She had to rely on herself.

As she studied him, gauging his skill, her analytical mind suggesting strategies that she automatically considered or disregarded, it occurred to her reporter’s mind that there were peculiarities surrounding the death of Jackson Tanner. Peculiarities that had been similar to another death…..

Her attacker growled – her eyes widened in shock as she saw him literally expand in size and knew that she was in far more danger than she had at first realized.

She had no choice now. This was a fight that would end in one way.

She roared at him until her throat was raw, her hands like claws, and she ran at him.

His first blow sliced through her shirt and opened up her belly – four neat, parallel incisions, nearly gutting her.

 

The next blow killed her.

 

Secrets & Howls

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