On Using Landmarks in Fiction

by James Scott Bell

Happy Easter! And what better time for the reappearance of America’s favorite vigilante nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

Yes, it’s finally here: FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS. I had the title first. All I needed was the story to go with it. A hot cross … hmm … a stolen cross? But how big a deal would that be?

Then it hit me. Mrs. B and I love going to the Hollywood Bowl in the summer. We bring a picnic dinner and sit in an area that gives us a view of iconic Hollywood buildings, like Capitol Records, The Roosevelt Hotel (where, it said, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe hangs out), and the old, rugged Hollywood Cross. That was it! The perfect MacGuffin for the title.

A little L.A. history is in order:

[T] cross was conceived … as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s pioneers, Christine Wetherell Stevenson, the heiress to the Pittsburgh Paint fortune who helped arrange construction of the Hollywood Bowl. She was also an aspiring playwright who wrote “The Pilgrimage Play,” a pageant about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

In 1920, Stevenson chose 29 acres across the Cahuenga Pass from the Hollywood Bowl and helped carry stones from the nearby hills to build the open-air Pilgrimage Theater. She died two years later and in 1923, her admirers memorialized her by planting the cross on the hill above the theater.

Within six years, a brush fire destroyed the original theater and in 1931 Stevenson’s drama reopened in a concrete theater designed in what was described as an “ancient Judaic style.”

For many years, the cross was lighted only at Easter and during the annual “Pilgrimage Play” season. But the public’s affection for the landmark grew and soon Sunday school children were donating money to keep the cross lit. Ultimately, Southern California Edison Co. assumed that expense and bore it until 1941, when the theater and cross were donated to the county. After the county supervisors accepted the gift, they renamed the theater after Supervisor John Anson Ford, recognizing his 24 years of service to the district in which the theater is located. The play continued its annual run until 1964, when the first in a series of lawsuits triggered by the facility’s religious uses forced an end to the performances.

The cross was damaged by fire a year later. The county replaced it with a steel and Plexiglas structure and operated it routinely for years. But the tradition came under legal fire in 1978, when a California Supreme Court ruling ended Los Angeles’ 30-year practice of lighting City Hall windows to form a cross at Christmas and Easter. Two years later, a college professor successfully argued in court that the county was violating the constitutional separation of church and state by maintaining the cross…

The cross, however, remained–dark and unguarded, abused and unused. Vandals chipped away at its foundation until a windstorm knocked it over it 1984.

Afterward, a small group of crusaders began raising funds for a new cross by doing a video documentary, recording a song, “The Ballad of the Hollywood Cross” by Mindas Masiulis, and collaborating with the Hollywood Heritage preservation group.

Almost 10 years later, with little fanfare, a new cross was erected on the small hilltop patch after the group purchased the site from the county.

So how could this landmark possibly be stolen? Who would do such a thing? And why? Find out in FORCE OF HABIT 5: HOT CROSS NUNS, on sale now for 99¢. Like the other novelettes in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone. The other entries are:





I love seeing landmarks in fiction and film. Who will ever forget the chase over Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest? Or King Kong atop the Empire State Building? Or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man stepping on Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ghostbusters, bringing forth Bill Murray’s classic line: “Nobody steps on a church in my town!”

The landmark doesn’t even have to be world famous. For example, there’s Top Notch Hamburgers in Austin, TX. That’s where Matthew “All right, all right, all right” McConaughey made his mark in Dazed and Confused.

So what’s a landmark in your home town? You do have one, you know. Even Takoma Park, Maryland has Roscoe the Rooster. So share yours!

Put Your Stamp On Everything You Write

James Scott Bell

We had some great comments on my post about Lee Marvin and writing your truth. I just finished watching Cat Ballou again, and I have to say Marvin’s Best Actor Oscar was well deserved. Remember, he wasn’t up against some powder puffs. His competition that year was Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger and Oskar Werner.
But Marvin deserved the gold statuette because, as the old actor Edmund Kean said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
Marvin’s portrayal of the drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen required just the right touch, and boy did he have it. Then I watched The Killers, a 1964 crime pic with Marvin playing a hit man (targeting one Ronald Reagan in his last movie role). In what could have been a standard-issue performance, Marvin put unique spin on the role and gave another great performance.
Whatever you write, you must put your particular stamp on it. Do that, and you can write great stories.
I mean it. Your category romance can be great for its genre. Or your police procedural. Or your vampire novel. Anything. But it requires more than giving us what we’ve seen before. 

Stamp is another word for voice. It’s that indefinable something that readers (unconsciously) and agents/editors (consciously) look for in a writer. 
How do you find it? Let me suggest the following (with apologies to Sue Grafton):
S is for Self – Look within before you start writing anything. Have an emotional connection to the material. Your own wiring creates the hum in your voice. Don’t ever write only to “sell.” Readers can sense that a mile away. 
T is for Training – It takes skill to put yourself on the page in a way that communicates. That’s why I call structure “translation software for your imagination.” Without it, you frustrate rather than capture readers.  Craft comes from practice and study. Produce the words! But also have a systematic program set up for yourself to keep learning how to make your words more effective.
A is for Audacity – Don’t be afraid of pushing yourself. Take risks in your writing. Go where the fear (or at least, the uncertainty) is. See what happens in the dark corners. Make life unbearably hard on your characters. You can always revise later, but playing it safe up front leaves potential gold in the ground. 
M is for Moments – Great fiction is about great moments. Clarice Starling’s first encounter with Hannibal Lecter. Katniss Everdeen singing a lullaby to the dying Rue. That carriage ride in Madame Bovary. Get to the big moments in your story and overwritethem. Don’t hold anything back emotionally. When you revise, that’s when you shape the moment by trimming or nuancing.
P is for Passion – Care about what your story is really about. You might not be able to sense it at first, but it’s there (we call this theme or premise). Look deep into your characters’ motives and yearnings. Including the bad guys. Justify everyone’s position as they fight it out. The emotional cross-currents you create will enchant your readers. 
Which brings me to my new release: FORCE OF HABIT 2: AND THEN THERE WERE NUNS.

This is the second novelette in my series. What is my stamp on this? Why am I writing about a nun who kicks butt?
For me, it started with the concept, which delighted my writing Self. Delight is a good thing to have when you write. Especially when your aim is entertainment. 

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I’ve been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. 

It was Audacious. Risk was involved. I did not know enough about nuns when I started. But I found a couple of experts (i.e., nuns who were willing to talk to me) for research. I wanted to be respectful and not devolve into a cartoon. And writing from the POV of a thirty-year-old former child star who went into the devoted life was a cool challenge.

The Moments I wanted to write were, first, the fight scenes. Also, there’s a wonderful moment in FORCE 2 that came out of the blue for me, so I just wrote it to see what would happen. Then beta readers told me they loved it. Thus, the wonderful alchemy of “the boys in the basement” worked again. (Hint: a celebrity is involved).  

And Passion. I’ve always been interested in things philosophical and theological—the big questions of life. And in these stories I stumbled upon an issue: the use of violence to stop evil. Talk about something that is on a lot of minds these days! In the Catholic tradition there is a long-standing debate over the “just war.” Well, I brought that down to the personal: what if a nun could stop someone from doing evil by laying them out cold? And found out she was good at it? Indeed, what if part of her enjoyed it, while the other part wondered if she was entirely normal?
So that’s my stamp. When I write anything, from the fun of FORCE OF HABIT to the suspense of DON’T LEAVE ME, I try to make this connection to the material.
So what about you? What does your writing stamp look like? Do you think about it before you write? Or do you find it as you go along? 

And: are you taking enough risks?
FORCE OF HABIT and FORCE OF HABIT 2 are both priced at 99¢. Enjoy!



Successful Fiction Begins With a Great Concept

Joe’s excellent post on the magic words “What if?” got me thinking about the crucial importance of concept.
I was going through some old files the other day and came across this little scrap of paper from several years ago. I remember it well. I was on a trip to talk with my publisher at the time, Zondervan, and to pitch some projects.
I had an idea that had been chugging around my brain for awhile. It was based on two things. First, an uncomfortable encounter with someone from my past who was insistent on edging back into my life.
The other was the plot of one of my favorite novels, The Executioners by John D. MacDonald (basis of the Cape Fearfilms).
I put those two items together. This is a great method of coming up with plot ideas, by the way. Dean Koontz has been a master at this. For instance, Midnight,one of his best thrillers, is a cross between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Koontz even references those titles in the book itself, to “wink” at the readers who recognize the plot lines. But the characters and setting are original creations. 
Anyway, I was in the hotel room in Grand Rapids and jotted this:

How far will a man go to protect his family? For lawyer Sam Trask, it’s farther than he ever thought possible. Because when an unwelcome presence from his past comes calling, bent on the destruction of his family, Sam must leave the civilized corners of the law and journey into the heart of darkness.

Not bad for an on-the-spot jot on Holiday Inn note paper. The concept was the basis of my novel No Legal Grounds (2007), which became a bestseller and is still one of my favorite thrillers.
The reason: concept. If you don’t get your concept solid and simple from the start, you’re likely to wander around in soggy bogs and down random rabbit trails.
A writing teacher once told me that the most successful movies and books are simple plots about complex characters. I think he has something there. You should be able to articulate your concept in a few lines.
A self-centered Southern belle is forced to fight for her home during and after the Civil War, even as she fights off the charms of a handsome rogue who looks exactly like Clark Gable.
To get back home, a Kansas farm girl has to kill a wicked witch in a land full of Munchkins and flying monkeys. Aided by a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion with issues, she faces dangers aplenty along a yellow brick road.

A vigilante nun cleans up the streets of L.A. Sinners beware. (Okay, I know, shameless. But it truly defines Force of Habit for me, and will for the entire series).
A simple, strong concept is your anchor, your floodlight in the darkness. It will keep you focused and writing scenes with organic unity.
In real estate, it’s location, location, location.
In fiction, it’s concept, concept, concept.
Make sure you know yours before you start writing.
I will be taking students from their concept through “sign post scenes” up to indestructible structure at my upcoming 2-day writing seminars. Would love to have you. Details can be found here.

I Am Going to Let the Readers Decide

It’s being said all over the place that the new “gatekeepers” in publishing are the readers. Because of self-publishing, and new initiatives by traditional publishers to go direct to readers via revamped websites, that certainly seems to be the case.
So I have decided to put it to the test by letting readers decide if a new idea of mine will become a series.
About a year ago my son laughingly offered me an idea. He loves to make up titles and concepts, just for fun. “Hey Pop,” he said, “how about a thriller about a nun who is secretly a vigilante? She knows martial arts, and can kick butt when necessary?”
I looked at him quizzically, and then he gave me the (you’ll pardon the expression) kicker: “You can call it FORCE OF HABIT.”
I cracked up. So did he. But he stopped when I said, “I think I’ll do it.”
“I was only kidding,” he said.
“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”
What I did was start to write it. On the side, as I had traditional contracts to fulfill. But as I played with this story, I got pulled more and more into it.
My martial arts nun I named Sister Justicia Marie (or Sister J, as she’s known by those close to her). I thought up her backstory. She is a former child star who grew up into a drug-using actress who then hit bottom. That’s when she turned her life over to God and entered into the sacred life.
But during her time before the cameras, she studied martial arts (particularly for a Steven Seagal film she was in) and those skills have not left her.
And as I like to dig into themes in my books, I thought this raised a most intriguing question: could a devout nun actually justify violence if it was in the course of doing good, like stopping violent criminals?
When a cop asks her the same question, I heard her say this about the criminal element: “They are the knuckles. I am the ruler.”
I started adding a cast of characters. And then I thought of plotlines, and the idea of a series started to unfold. These would be in novelette form, around 15k words each. I think that’s a good pulp fiction value for the reading dollar.
I even went so far as to commission a talented young artist to do a series logo for me, a nun issuing a flying kick. And then the pitch:
When a nun is viciously attacked, Sister Justicia Marie takes it upon herself to find out what happened. The cops don’t like that. Neither does her Mother Superior at St. Cecelia’s school. But when a couple of hoods try to stick up a liquor store and Sister J brings them down, something is unleashed inside her, something that will either confirm her calling . . . or destroy it.
So now here it is. For KINDLE and NOOK, the first of the Rogue Nuns series featuring Sister Justicia Marie:

Here is my request: I’m asking you, the, readers to decide if the series will go on. By reading FORCE OF HABIT, and offering reviews, you will help me make the decision whether to continue.  
In this case, you are indeed the gatekeepers and the decision makers. So let me hear from you. Thanks!