Sunday, January 8, 2012

Picture Perfect

The most frequent question at bookstore events is, “Where do your ideas come from?”

Well, most of the time, they appear out of thin air.  But once in a great while something from what I try to think of as “real life” prompts a story development.  Here's an example.

Some time ago, my wife and I had the good fortune to make friends with someone whom I'm not going to name, but she had been famous for several decades due to a series of very funny books she'd written for a large audience of women who, like her, hated to cook and do housework.

We had mutual friends, but we met her face-to-face for the first time in Hawaii, when I was on my way to Asia to write and my wife was accompanying me as far as Bali.  What we had feared would be a slightly awkward lunch turned into a prolonged, delightful, and highly lubricated lunner, comprising lunch, dinner, and many, many drinks in between.

We were in love with her when we left, and remained so for years and years.

She was in her early seventies when we met, and more vigorous than either my wife or I, who were in our late forties.  Ten years later, we got a note from her saying she was going to marry.  (Her first husband died before we met her.)  Enclosed were three pictures of her and her husband-to-be.

They scared me silly.

She (let's call her Margaret) was sitting on quite a bit of money; she'd sold a very large number of books.  And she was now in her eighties.  The pictures she'd sent us were Polaroids, and she looked ecstatically happy in all three of them.  I couldn't tell you how happy her fiance looked, because we couldn't see his face.

In any of the pictures.

In the first, he had his head down, and his features were obscured by the bill of his cap.  In the second, he'd turned his head as the shutter snapped, and he was a blur.  In the third, he was kissing Margaret on the cheek and her profile obscured most of his.

I immediately called to congratulate her and to grill her diplomatically about him.  She'd known him forever, she said; he'd been a friend of her husband's and was, in her words, richer than God.  I relaxed and offered an unnecessary blessing, and the two of them lived happily until Margaret passed away.

But in the nasty, nefarious part of me that makes bad things happen to good (if imaginary) people, those photographs had taken root.  I thought about them almost every time I wrote a book, but the opportunity to use them never came up until my most recent ebook, LITTLE ELVISES.

The hero of LITTLE ELVISES is a Los Angeles burglar named Junior Bender, who moonlights as a private eye—for crooks.  That's a good way to make dangerous enemies, so Junior lives in a succession of dreadful motels in an area—the San Fernando Valley—that's especially rich in dreadful motels.

His first day on his new case has been a bad one; he's just been shot at.  Already unhappy at this turn of events, he becomes even more unhappy when he sees there's a light on in the room adjoining his, which gives him pause, because he's rented it, too.  (An adjoining room can be used as an escape route.)

But the room's occupant turns out to be Marge, the surviving owner of Marge 'n Ed's North Pole, the motel of the week, and Marge has a problem: her daughter has disappeared after running off with a man of whom Marge instinctively disapproves because he wears a pinkie ring.  Junior tries to fob her off with assurances until:

“Look at these.”  Marge dug into a purse the size of a saddlebag and came out with two color snapshots.  She dealt them at me, giving each of them an expert, Vegas-worthy flick that carried them from one bed to another.  I picked them up and found myself looking at two shots of the same couple.

The female was clearly the issue of Marge's loins, if the pronounced nasal apparatus and the long upper lip were any indication, but the man was a complete mystery.  In one shot, he was shading his eyes from the sun, and he'd tilted his hand down until nothing showed but his mouth, and in the other, he'd turned his head away at the last moment, creating an interesting modern abstract where his face should have been.  

Not good.

Marge said, “Tell me about that.”

"Okay,” I said.  “I'll think about it.”

And he does.

So it took 30 years, but I finally got to use Margaret's Polaroids.  And they lead Junior toward a monster who preys on the lonely and the unhappy.  And, at the end, a big surprise.

(I'm working around the clock on my publisher's edit to THE FEAR ARTIST, the new Poke Rafferty, so I "borrowed" this piece, which I originally wrote for novelist Jackie King's blog.  Thanks, Jackie)

Tim -- Sunday


  1. FYI: I just read the story about your mother's ring and how important it is to you and your spouse. It's posted at In Reference to Murder.

    A beautiful story, one to cherish. I was on the verge of tears.

    Your and your spouse are both very lucky and your mother was thoughtful, kind and a romantic.

  2. I must say you have had some interesting people show up in your life, and your humanity and concern show up everywhere. I read the story of your ring (thank you, Kathy), and I think your mother gave you many, many gifts, didn't she?

  3. Which only raises the real question: where did the idea of the North Pole Motel come from?

  4. Hi, kathy, and thanks for the nice words about the story of my mom's ring. My wife and I are beyond lucky, and there's a story about my wedding ring, too, which I may tell in another post.

    Thanks as always, Lil. My mother was pretty amazing. Both she and my father seemed to be made of more substantial stuff than I and many members of my generation. And thanks to her and my father, my brothers and I grew up in a home (many homes, actually) where love was taken for granted.

    Philip -- The North Pole Motel is the Ritz Carlton compared to the place in which Junior and Ronnie are staying now -- Valentine Shmalentine, the world's only kosher love hotel.

  5. Those of us blessed with terrific parents have much to be thankful for every day of our lives. Though a Ritz Carlton helps too.

  6. We do indeed, Jeff. Just saw TREE OF LIFE last night, and in between the supernovas and the dinosaurs was a very touching story about a family headed by a mercurial, emotion-bound father, and all I could think was, that's what my friends' fathers were like.

    Lucky us.

  7. Son's sort of like my son's...according to his sister:)