FROM WRITING FUNNY FICTION TO WRITING TRUE CRIME
by Morgan St. James
I’m one of those people who definitely is a workaholic. When I’m asked what I do for fun, I often reply that I write—and I read. How lucky is that? Being an author, speaker and columnist with ten books and over 500 published columns to my credit is something I really enjoy and look at as fun.
Until last year I mainly wrote funny crime fiction. In the mid-1990s my sister Phyllice Bradner and I came up with the idea for the Silver Sisters Mysteries featuring identical twins born in different decades, different years, different months and on different days. They look like silver-haired Mae Wests and have a talent for solving mysteries, but lest you get the wrong idea, they don’t go looking for trouble, it finds them. Although identical on the outside, they have two very different personalities and lifestyles. One is a wealthy Beverly Hills widow who writes the “Ask G.O.D.” syndicated advice column from her luxurious estate. The other is an over-the-hill flower child who owns an antique shop in Juneau, Alaska and is married to a cruise ship captain.
Flossie Silver and Uncle Sterling Silver, their 80-year-old mother and uncle, live in cottages on Godiva’s estate and round out the cast of characters. These former vaudeville magicians perform at the Home for Hollywood Has-Beens every Thursday with Waldo the Wonderdog, love to go undercover in disguise and often use magic illusions to get out of the scrapes they get into. The wacky Silver family and full cast of other characters give us the opportunity to concoct funny crime capers with lots of twists and turns. It all began with the award-winning A Corpse in the Soup, followed by Seven Deadly Samovars and Vanishing Act in Vegas. The fourth book in the series, Diamonds in the Dumpster, is in work.
My most recent funny crime caper, Who’s Got the Money? co-authored with Meredith Holland, was inspired by a series of true events and, while fiction, is a different sort of crime caper. Meredith and I both worked as marketing reps for prison-manufactured furniture for about 4 years—a little-known business that actually does book about 800 Million Dollars of business annually— with about 600 Million in furniture. Government fiascos and misuse of funds are constantly in the news, so we felt the time was right to concoct a fictional scheme to embezzle millions from the Federal prison manufacturing entity. Then we added three savvy female executives who turn into Charlie’s Angels wannabes and accidentally uncover this diabolical plot.
Who’s Got the Money? was my foray into using true life knowledge and events to create pure crime fiction, and was a good training ground for what came next.
Writing is a solitary profession and it is fun to have someone to interact with during the process. I’ve written other books on my own, but really do enjoy writing with co-authors. For me, a primary consideration is the goal of writing seamlessly, so the reader can’t tell where one author begins and the other leaves off. Writing with partners is always different depending upon the other person’s strengths, skills and knowledge. To me, it is essential to decide how you will write together before one word is tapped out on the computer. Because my writing partners always seem to involve a long-distance writing situation, God bless email, Skype, unlimited long-distance phone service, etc.
When I write with my sister, it is also a sister bonding time, so we try to get together for a few days when we create the plot points and for a final read-through, either in Oregon where she lives or my house in Las Vegas. Like many things, the destinations have changed during the years we’ve written together. We started out with her in Juneau, Alaska and me in Los Angeles, California.
That brings me to my latest fascination and what I’ve learned about the difference between writing funny fiction and true crime.
Last year I was approached by Dennis N. Griffin, an author with several true crime books to his credit, relative to a project he was about to begin. He wanted to know if I would be interested in co-authoring what is now the about-to-be-published book La Bella Mafia. He wanted to be able to write the events in Bella Capo’s startling life from a woman’s perspective. Bella has severe PTSD and he also knew I’d had experience with a mild case of PTSD after a life-threatening auto accident. He warned me this wasn’t a project for the faint-of-heart. I accepted and for the past year we have been using email, phone conferences and Skype to work with this incredible story. It begins when she was the abused child of a crime boss, to the time she ran clubs and after-hours clubs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, later becoming a white female boss in a notorious national gang and then founding La Bella Mafia, an online organization to protect and counsel abused women. Although this beautiful woman also has Traumatic Brain Injury from the beatings she received earlier in life, you’d never know it and that doesn’t stop her from being a dynamic force.
I immediately adjusted to the big difference between funny fiction and true crime. You don’t get to make up stuff, and have to ask for backup and verification, particularly when writing about organized crime. After all, isn’t like stories you watch for an hour or so on TV or in the movies. Brutal things happen. Chances are taken. Some work out and some don’t. Terror often rides in the passenger seat. Most of all, it is all real. The reliving is generally very traumatic to the person whose story it is, so you must be compassionate and understanding.
In my opinion it is very important to keep that person’s speech patterns and descriptions, known as “the voice.” In our case, Bella is an excellent writer in her own right but what happened to her and what she experienced was enough for 20 lives. Our job was to pick and choose what to include and what to possibly save for another book, create the flow and instill Bella with very three-dimensional human qualities and emotions in the book. It was imperative she not be a “cardboard character.” That’s where a fiction background came in handy. The facts weren’t changed, but it wasn’t written as a documentary or in investigative style either. Dennis and I both used all of our experience and skills to make it a book from written the heart in such a way that it will offer inspiration and help to other abused women.
So now I’m hooked on writing true crime. Dennis has brought me into two future projects and in this case collaboration is good. Besides being the author of many books, he is a former police investigator with the background to know what we have to fact-check and has first-hand knowledge of police procedures. I’m quick to admit I don’t have that knowledge.
What a balance. I can work on funny fiction and true crime side-by-side now, looking at both the light side and the gritty side. No wonder I love what I do.
|Morgan St. James|
Getting Even - A Kindle Only Prequel to WHO'S GOT THE MONEY?
Confessions of a Cougar from Marina Publishing Group
Can We Come In and Laugh, Too? (Edited by Morgan)
order online at most booksellers or order at your favorite local bookstore
Visit my websites:
http://writerstricksofthetrade.blogspot.com (blog for writers)
Thanks for visiting me today, Morgan. Loved learning about all this.