I get started by doing what I assume most creative writers do when starting a new project: I google “Noir Writing Prompts” and see what comes up. It turns out the internet is no help, and as I am still fuzzy on what would make something I’d write noir exactly, I do the next best thing.
I facebook my friend Richard, who writes noir and horror and all kinds of twisted shit, and say, “Hey, send me a noir prompt. I need to write something dark and sinister.”
He responds, “Three things: dark alley in a big city; woman in trouble who is not all she seems; there must be one act of violence or sex, or, violent sex. Go!”
Okay, so, a woman who is not as she seems (and who may or may not be in trouble…I mean, really, are we all distressed dames?) a dark alley in a big city, sex, or violence, or both. The hint of a protagonist emerges in my mind, the shadow of a woman. She’s fuzzy, but she’s there.
My mind flashes to the crime dramas of my youth, before all the characters carried iPads and enlisted the help of quirky, goth-looking hackers to help them find the bad guys.
Maybe my character would be someone I could find in an episode of Murder She Wrote, an aging, alcoholic Broadway actress with a gambling habit and a thin, greasy boyfriend who has shifty eyes and a Loni Anderson look-alike he fucks on the side, which would have to be implied, of course, because no one fucked on TV in the 80s.
Maybe my character—I name her Iris, because that’s the name of all my fictional female characters until one of my shitty stories gets published—will be all ginned up walking down a New York City alley, and she’ll catch her boyfriend and Loni Anderson in a suspicious embrace and go all batshit on both of them. Except, let’s face it, the 80s were not sexy. I’ve seen steamier embraces between Hannah Montana and her dad, country music badass Billy Ray Cyrus, than I remember seeing on the 80s crime dramas. And what about the outfits back then that qualified as risqué? The women’s sweaters had shoulder pads in them, and their pants were all pleated. Come to think of it, the only episode of Murder She Wrote I actually remember is the one where Jessica Fletcher got pushed down the stairs or something, and was in a coma, and I secretly wished she wouldn’t wake up, so I could stop watching the damn show at my grandma’s house every Sunday evening before 60 Minutes.
What about a Jessica Rabbit or Madonna Breathless Mahoney type? Could my Iris be something like one of them, a low-level performer with a propensity for dark men? Certainly, both those women were a little hotter than, say, Angela Lansbury. And Warren Beatty kind of works for me, even though he’s old. So, what if Iris is in the alley to pick up the steroids for her ailing voice, ooh, or maybe some amphetamines to keep her skinny like her men like her, or maybe she’s getting tossed around by some smarmy “manager” who’s making her do nasty things to get ahead in the world, and a tough-exteriored but soft-hearted Warren Beatty-type intervenes and tells her she’s better than her addiction, and she’s so turned on by his vulnerability that she starts taking her clothes off right there because if she’s modeled after Jessica Rabbit or Breathless Mahoney, she’s bound to be a freaky bitch.
But I don’t like that version of Iris either. The overt “come hither” sexuality of both Breathless Mahoney and Jessica Rabbit makes me a little nervous, truth be told. Maybe it’s because of who I am as a person, but I just think I’d have trouble conjuring an Iris that was much more than “there’s something a little intriguing about the librarian” sexy.
I google “Prototypical Femme Fatale” to see if I can get any assistance. A 1947 movie entitled Out of the Past pops up, along with a picture of a guy in a trench coat and hat, cigarette dangling from his mouth. Behind him stands a woman with dark and wavy hair, wine-red lips. He tilts his head toward her, her lips are close to his ear. The photo is captioned: “The tough hero who is doomed for the love of the wrong woman; the treacherous femme fatale who double-crosses every man she meets; the inevitability of the past resurfacing to assure violent death; the night, when everything seems to happen so commonly that daylight seems an intrusion; gangsters; nightclubs; jazz; bright lights; deep shadows; a good woman lost; dialogue that sounds like pulp poetry –.”
Well, that isn’t helpful at all.
Maybe Iris could be a high-class call girl. In my real life, our neighborhood has a bit of a prostitution issue, so I feel like I might be able to draw on some level of true-life experience to guide the scene, a sinister variation of that time my husband inadvertently solicited a hooker when he motioned her to cross the street as he tried to make a left turn at our corner. That was fucking hilarious.
Okay, so I put Iris, the hooker, in a dark, big city alley to see what kind of violent or sexy hijinks might ensue. The biggest problem with that version of Iris is that when I picture her in my mind’s eye, she looks nothing like the woman in the prototypical femme fatale photo. She looks like the crack whores in my neighborhood: unshowered, wearing sweatpants, pale, painfully thin, and with a face so devoid of any softness, you wonder if she ever had a soul. Where’s the fun in writing that Iris? She’s not sexy or violent; she’s just sad.
How does a woman become a ho-bag who’s not sad? What makes these damaged women worth rooting for? Is my problem that I’m coming at the story through the eyes of the woman, and I’m a woman myself?
Perhaps I am over-thinking things. I think about when I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon for a grad class and thought it was the stupidest fucking thing I’d ever picked up until my douche bag professor enlightened me about how all the lesbian sex scenes were not for male gratification at all, but instead were meant to “empower” women.
It is possible that I go through this life, and it’s a good life—full of sunny days and soccer games—as the mild-mannered, soft-featured den mother, when my heart is a big city dark alley.
In the end, I decide I want my protagonist to remain female. I re-name her Claudia. She is young, just twenty, and she works part-time as a receptionist in a dental office. But her real job is as a fetish escort. She meets a guy named Gil whose fetish is making Claudia strip naked and behave as though she’s a dog. She does things like drink red wine from a dog dish, and she even offers to roll on her back and give him a submissive piss for an extra $50, which he declines because he’s too civilized for that. Anyway, Gil is murdered in his office, and the police find Claudia’s phone number written in permanent marker on the tag of his zebra-striped underwear. Even though the story right now is set in a college town, where I thought Claudia would be more likely to encounter happily-married, soft-handed guys with secrets, so far, the story itself is dirty, uncomfortable, and, according to Richard, the guy who sent me the original prompt, definitely noir.
When I figure out how to work her into a dark alley in a big city, maybe I’ll read it for you.
Carrie Gaffney’s days in the community theater circuit are long gone. Now she lives and works in Indianapolis, where, on occasion, she also writes something that doesn’t mortify the hell out of her children.
Dark alley photo by Dand8282 (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noalleynight.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Loni Anderson and Burt Reynolds by Alan Light (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALoni_Anderson_and_Burt_Reynolds_(2076644720).jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
Jessica Rabbit cosplay by Pat Loika (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJessica_Rabbit_cosplay_2013.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
Out of the Past photo by D.C. Geist (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AOutOfThePastMitchumGreer.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.
Receptionist photo by Bill Branson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AReceptionist.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.