19 October 2011

Who Are Those Guys?

by Deborah Elliott-Upton

If a picture is worth a thousand words, it makes sense writers would find entire storylines within the photographic image. As a majority of my writing time is spent composing mysteries, people assume I must have tons of files of crime scenes. More often than not, my ideas come to me in tiny doses by reading between the lines of someone's old yearbooks, family scrapbooks and even history books. These are some of the places where ideas come rushing to meet my muse like star-crossed lovers running toward each other with outstretched arms in a field of flowers.

I don't want to know the facts behind the photographs, their names or anything that tells the truth about their lives. I adhere to the Lawrence Block truths in his book, TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT. I profess to inventing crimes and criminals, as well as law enforcement and have a lot of fun while doing it. Although I occasionally read true crime books, they usually give me nightmares.

At an auction, I purchased a family photo album from the early 1900's. I have no idea who originally owned this scrapbook or why no one in the family wished to keep it. There are no captions to identify the people in the photos. It is likely no living relative remembers who these people are and that keeping it was like keeping strangers' photos in your home. That may be why they sold it at auction and exactly why I wanted to own them.

In my mind's eye, the people having a picnic beside a creekbed are not simply having a leisurely afternoon lunch. I see someone watching them from a hiding place. Something sinister is about to be discovered near or in the creek. Perhaps a lover is about to be found out by a jeaous spouse.

I enjoy going to the mall, not to shop for a new dress, but for characters to occupy my next story. The Food Court is a breeding ground for wonderfully complex characters. If you aren't a writer, this could be considered stalking since a few times I did follow a couple from the food area to a store just to see what they might find attractive enough to make them stop and look closer. I don't do this often and have never followed anyone from the mall although I admit to being curious enough to want to know more about them. I didn't though. I do have some scruples and a sincere fear of being on the wrong side of jail bars.

Trying to see past the obvious, I wonder if the young mother with the fussy baby and a toddler who won't sit still looks more tired than the average mom on a mid-afternoon trip to the mall. Is she a Secret Shopper trying to earn extra money to make ends meet? Does she have a husband deployed overseas and she's doing double-duty as a parent? Is she running from something or perhaps someone?

The man at the next table is older and seems anxious. Is it because he's waiting for his shopaholic wife whose dragged him here when he'd rather be playing golf? Does he have bad news from a doctor he hasn't yet shared with his wife? Has he embezzled from his boss and is afraid he may be found out?

See the middle-aged woman in the matching sweater set? She's the type no one would suspect of poisoning her elderly mother she's taken over as a caregiver. While she's twirling a straw in a blueberry smoothie, is she thinking of her wasted life or simply that she wished she were sipping a chocolate malt ? Does she want to change her image and reinvent herself or simply buy another sweater set in another pastel hue?

No one is what I imagine. They are probably nice people living ordinary lives like the rest of us. None are likely criminals, nor planning to become one in the future. But those characters aren't suited for a mystery novel. In my stories, they'll become who I imagine them in a parallel universe version.

Would I rather be labeled a liar? In this instance, I say yes. Block is right: telling lies is fun and also, a bit profitable.


  1. Good column- I like the idea of the album!

  2. I can just imagine the storylines you come up with at Walmart!! LOL!! Murderous possibilities abound!!

  3. Deborah, thank you for that wonderful look inside your imagination. It’s delightful to see how easily you compose chillingly useful back-stories for folks you know are probably quite innocent.

    Are you as good at composing similarly dark back-stories for places (geographical locations, cities, etc.), in order to use them as story settings? From your description of something sinister inhabiting the creek bed (ref: the photo), I suspect you are. And, I have to admit: this is something I often have problems with—particularly when I like the place I’m writing about.

    Since this is a difficulty for me, I wonder if you’d care to share some of your thoughts about it when you get the chance.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post,

  4. Dix, you should check out my last column, "Inspirational Smiles" and it will show you what I did to a perfectly lovely vacation spot. Thanks for the kind words! And Lissa: you are giving me ideas all the time!!!

  5. Thank you, Deborah. You're quite right. And, I did read it.

    Sadly, you now know why my wife tells me: "You have the memory of an elephant -- Too bad it's a dead elephant!"

  6. Deborah, I spotted Lawrence Block's Getting
    Off: A Novel of Sex and Violence
    in the bookstore– rather hard
    to miss. Wonder who will classify the cover as hot and who will think
    it chilling?


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