Way Stranger Than Fiction

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Have you ever noticed how many truly bizarre news stories come out of Florida? As a kid and young adult, to me Florida was just the place I visited my grandfather and occasionally went on vacation to the beach. It seemed pretty tame except for all the alligators. (And my grandparents did give me one of those real stuffed ones wearing a sombrero. **shudders**) It wasn’t until the last five or six years that I noticed the news stories. Of course now everyone notices the Florida news stories. The Smoking Gun, whence I pulled the above headlines, even has a “Florida” section. As to the why, ridiculous theories abound: everything from “crazy old people” to the truly baffling “racism because it’s a melting pot.” A more logical explanation is that it has something to do with Florida’s open records laws. The gritty details are ostensibly out there for everyone to report. (Elaine? Do you happen to know if this is a true thing?) I don’t mean to pick on Florida. Weirdness abides in every corner of this country, but I think that it is no accident that the novelist Harry Crews found Florida to be very fertile ground for his darkly colorful stories.

I used to keep a file of weird news clips, or crime stories that piqued my interest. Now I just make notes in my journal or bookmark them in my browser.

The one big problem with using real life, over-the-top events is that they sound way too implausible for fiction. If you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I couldn’t make that up,” about something, it’s probably because, well, you couldn’t.

I’m not sure why fiction and real life fight each other in this way. It might have something to do with the vast number of variables in real life that must come together to lead someone to do something like wrap his face in plastic wrap to rob convenience stores. In real life, there are coincidences. In real life, there is serious mental illness, and there are women who try to smuggle drugs into the country in burritos. Conversely, in real life, things can get dull awfully fast. Just try to imagine writing that (insurance, law, human resources, retail buyer) office novel that your cousin says will make you both a million bucks after she tells you about the crazy drama that happens where she works. (Don’t do it unless her name rhymes with Micky Fervais.)

Good fiction depends on competent, complete world building. Even if you don’t spend a lot of verbiage on a character’s backstory or personality, every action that character takes has to seem plausible within the world you’ve created. That created world is a finite place, and your reader will know right away if you throw in something that doesn’t work.

Real life is full of uninventable details. With practice, a good writer can make invented details seem uninvented. One of my favorite examples is the speech of a toddler or child anywhere under the age of seven. All the wild variables of the world go into their small heads, and what comes out is often bizarre beyond belief. It makes sense only to them.

It’s a good idea to take notes on real life. You’ll discover those uninventable details if you look closely enough. Try not to think: “How would I describe this person?” Simply observe. We’ve all read a lot of books, and often come up with the same old shorthand for describing our characters, their situations, and even their speech. Look. Really look, and just write down what you see. Chances are you’ll see something surprising. Then, when you do, figure out why it’s consistent with that person. What is it about their life that makes their surprising behavior reasonable?

Here’s one more story. It’s a real life example of a bizarre event that might actually work as fiction. A sixty-eight year-old man in Belleville, Illinois, repeatedly stuck sewing needles into packages of meat at his local grocery store. When asked why he did it, he said, “it was stupidity, I didn’t want to hurt nobody.” The uninventable detail? He rode around the store on a motorized scooter with his portable oxygen tank. I don’t know why I was so struck by this story. Tampering cases are diabolical. Fortunately no one was badly injured. Wanting to know more, I did a more thorough search on his story, and found his obituary. He died a little more than a year after he was caught tampering with the meat. His case had been postponed because his lawyers said he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial when it came up. His obituary described a man who was productive in the world, and much-beloved by his family. Somewhere in between those two documents there is a complete story, waiting to be fleshed out and told. A place where real life and supposition live comfortably side-by-side.

What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve ever included in a story? Did you make it up, and pull it off?

 

If you’re in the St. Louis area, stop by the Meshuggah Cafe on Delmar Blvd. on Saturday night, July 30, 7-10 pm. It’s a Noir at the Bar launch party for St. Louis Noir (Akashic Books, Scott Phillips, editor), and I’ll be reading with Scott and some of the other contributors.

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Freshening Up Your Scooby Doo Ending

 

Scooby doo 3

 

True story: some college students were touring a county coroner’s office. The tour included visit to an autopsy room, where a coroner and a diener were in the process of examining the body of a deceased unfortunate. The diener, with the students looking on, turned the corpse over and exclaimed, “Rut row!” The reason for this utterance was that the corpse had a tattoo of Scooby Doo inked into one cheek of his posterior. Gallows humor, indeed.

Scooby Doo is firmly ensconced in the American culture. The plot of each cartoon episode is very similar, with a crime occurring, Scooby and his pals investigating, and the villain of the piece being unmasked, literally, at the end. I think that I scooby doo2scooby doo1       first heard this type of climax referenced as a “Scooby Doo” ending during the second of the three climaxes to the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It has been a vehicle used in mystery novels long before that. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, except that 1) it sometimes doesn’t work and 2) sometimes it needs a little work. I ran across an example of the former several months ago while reading a thriller that was one of the many nephews to The Da Vinci Code wherein the protagonist’s adversary was running around killing people while wearing a tribal mask and attempting to obtain an instrument of antiquity which would permit him to destroy the universe. The protagonist got the mask off of the evildoer near the end and the book ended. “Rut row!” The book was okay, but the ending was a total disappointment.

season of fearThat brings us to a book I read this week in which the author uses the Scooby Doo ending to great effect by taking the story a step or two beyond it. The author is the morbidly underappreciated Brian Freeman and the book is Season of Fear, the second and latest of the Cab Bolton novels. (Please note: it’s not quite a spoiler, but there’s a general revelation ahead. Read the book regardless). The premise is fairly straightforward. Ten years ago a Florida gubernatorial candidate was assassinated by a masked gunman, throwing the election into chaos. A suspect was identified, tried, convicted, and jailed. In the present, the candidate’s widow is running for the same seat when she receives a threatening note which purports to be from the same assassin. Indeed, he eventually turns up, and his identity is ultimately revealed in a grand unmasking. But wait. Freeman, after giving the reader enough action to fill two books and expertly presenting a complex but easy to follow plot, gives the reader more to chew on. Things don’t end with the revelation of the identity of the doer; instead, Freeman moves us a couple of more steps forward, revealing a potential unexpected mover and shaker who was a couple of steps ahead of everyone, including Bolton. This has the double-barreled effect of making the climax much more interesting and setting up a potential adversarial setting for Cab Bolton in a future novel. Nice work.

Again, Scooby Doo endings are okay. They’re fine. But if your particular novel in waiting has one, and seems to lack pizazz, don’t just take the doer’s mask off, or reveal their identity, or whatever. Take things a step further just as the curtain is going down, and reveal who is pulling the cord, and perhaps yanking the chain. It may be a character that was present throughout your book, or someone entirely new, or…well, you might even want to create a character and work your way backwards with them. But stay with the mask, and go beyond it.

So what say you? Have you read anything recently where the ending really surprised you, unmasking revelations or otherwise notwithstanding? Do you like Scooby Doo endings, in your own work or the work of others? Or can you do without them?

Oh, lest I forget… SCOOBY-DOO and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Hanna-Barbera. Rowwrr!

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