27 June 2012

Time to get Brutal

by Robert Lopresti

I have said  before that I think the best part of writing – better than seeing your work in print, better than cashing a check, better than attending the opening of the film adapted from you book, surrounded by adoring fans in skimpy—

Sorry.  Where was I?    

Best part.  Right.  The best part is the moment of creation.  There is no idea and then suddenly, miraculously, there is.  Amazing.

Often I can tell you exactly when and where that moment happened.  I was driving down the road and a song came on the radio and – Hey!  That line is meant to be a book title – And I almost drove off the road.

But sometimes it isn’t that easy.  Take “Brutal,” my story currently gracing the September issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.  (On finer newsstands everywhere, and some lousy ones too.)

I can tell you that this story is a mash-up of a Jim Thompson novel and a Neil Simon movie, and that’s true.  But it doesn’t tell you where the idea came from.  I didn’t wake up one day and say: “Thompson and Simon!  Perfect together!”  No, something brought the two tales together in my head, and whatever that was Is lost in the swamps of memory.

So let’s talk about the story itself.  Coyle is a professional assassin, one of those guys, as he says, “who can kill you with one finger.”  He is in a big city going after a high-value target.  Things go well for a while and then, conflict being the heart of fiction, things go not so well. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot.  Go read the thing.

But first, I wanted to tell you one more oddity.  A century ago Robert Benchley wrote an essay called “Mind’s Eye Trouble,” in which he lamented his lack of visual imagination.

I seem to have been endowed at birth by a Bad, Bad Fairy with a paucity of visual imagination which amounts practically to a squint...  This limitation of mine might not be so cramping in its effect if the few visual images which I have were not confined almost exclusively to street scenes in Worcester, Massachusetts, the fortunate city which gave me birth...  (I)t is not the ideal locale for the CHANSON de ROLAND or the adventures of Ivanhoe.

Benchley goes on to say that he pictures the entire history of the Roman Empire taking place in a driveway on the corner of May and Woodland Streets, while all the events in Dickens take place on the second floor of a house on Shepherd Street.

I suffered from that problem when I was a child, but as I saw more of the world I outgrew it.  But here’s the interesting bit…

I recently sold another story to Hitchcock’s, and, like “Brutal,” this one begins in a rundown office building.  I happen to know for a certainly that both stories are in the same building. 

How do I know?  Good question.  Neither the building nor the city are named.  The slim descriptions of the buildings don’t even overlap much.  But I am sure, largely because I based them on the same building I visited a few years ago.  

At this point some writers or writing teachers might try to draw a moral out of that.  Like: both stories sold because they were focused on a real place, real in my imagination and therefore vivid to the reader.
To me, that’s magical thinking.  But obviously I don’t know where my next story idea will come from or set itself (see the beginning of this piece).  So the fictional building manager should probably tighten security.

 Before I fold my tents I want to thank R.T. Lawton for reading "Brutal" in its earlier days and giving me the benefit of his advice.  The check is in the mail, R.T.  Not to you, of course, but you can't have everything.


  1. Congratulations.
    Stories in print are always a good thing.

  2. Many of my stories occur in my own neighborhood, too. I find it so easy (and oddly satisfying) to feature a house down the street, or my own for that matter. A story I have coming out in Dec EQMM takes place entirely on my own street. The characters, of course, are entirely fictional and any resemblance, etc..etc...

    Congrats on both stories, Rob! I look forward to reading them.

  3. Brutal is a great story. I look forward to "visiting" that shabby building again.

  4. Congratulations; I enjoyed Brutal. While most of the people up here swear they know every place in (my) Laskin, South Dakota, they really don't - it's actually the small town in the Appalachian mountains that my grandparents lived in. Childhood memories of places are core. I've just overlaid some local color onto that.

  5. Childhood places lie at the root of many of my settings, also. Really enjoyed the post, rob!


  6. I love columns like this one--it's fun to find out what writers were thinking when they came up with a particular story. I've not read "Brutal" yet, but looking forward to it, and the next one as well. Congratulations!

  7. I enjoy reading about how you crime fiction writers come up with ideas for stories, characters, and setting. What I want is not reality in setting or character, I ask is the description convincing, does it make me see in my imagination the character or setting as a place that could exist?

  8. Thanks for the kind words. I'd like to see more of us write about how we pick our settings. Something for future blogs entries...

  9. Great story. Big congrats. I wish good ideas would pop into my head more often, but I haven't found a way to make this happen.

    I do know that every story I've written based on a real place and event in my life has sold. But making the ideas come just doesn't happen. They come when they wish, often fully blown, and ready to write.

  10. James, you have had plenty of great ideas. I've read some of them.

    Boy, I wish more of my stories came "full blown, and ready to write." More often I have to pry them loose, kicking and screaming.

  11. Robert, thanks for the kind words. Those fully blown stories are wonderful, but I've had maybe ten of them in almost thirty-three years of writing.

    The rest of the time, I have to do a bunch of kicking and screaming, as well. A couple of times I even had to threaten my old manual typewriter with a baseball bat.

    This doesn't seem to work with a word processor, though. It seems to know I won't really whack it, so I have to go back to kicking, screaming, and begging. Sigh.

  12. Rob, reading your stories for critique is one of my bennies. Usually, I have to pay good money to magazines or publishers in order to read worthy short stories. But, now about that check in the mail......

  13. Rob, reading your stories for critique is one of my bennies. Usually, I have to pay good money to magazines or publishers in order to read worthy short stories. But, now about that check in the mail......

  14. *** Spoiler Alert ***

    It's a damn fine entertaining story.

    And by the way, Terrie Moran has a story in the corresponding Ellery Queen.

  15. Curse you, Leigh, you've given it away. Speaking of spoilers I meant to put this in the comments: If anyone is curious the inspirations I mentioned above were THE GETAWAY by Jim Thompson and THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS by Neil Simon.


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