Sixty-seven years ago, a black-and-white film noir debuted at movie theatres in America. Directed by Jules Dassin and based on a story by author Malvin Wald, The Naked City portrays the police investigation that follows the murder of a young model. Shot partially in documentary style, the tale takes place on the streets of New York City. At the end of the film, the narrator says, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
I love to look for paintings that whisper of stories yearning to be told. To paraphrase the ending of The Naked City, “There are eight million stories inside this painting. This is one of them.”
First, though, I have to choose a painting or photograph. Nowadays I peruse Pinterest. If a Pinterest painting or photo intrigues me, I’ll save it on my hard drive in a folder set up for short stories destined for my Facebook author’s page. What do I seek? My genre is sword-and-sorcery fantasy, so if I see a scene on a medieval world governed by the laws of a magic, I invariably take a second look and maybe save it to the folder. I like mysterious images of figures lurking in shadows, perhaps an airship or dragon in the sky above them. That way the story I hope to find is not obvious. Some finesse must be employed to free the story from the shadows.
Each person who takes a moment to consider the selected painting or photo will wonder what the man or woman is doing in the image, why the person is at that exact spot at that exact moment. I choose from a lifespan of memories, everything that makes me who I am today. Maybe I’ll build on memories of family life or stories told to me of ancestors who died before I was born. Or I’ll remember a scene in a novel or movie and it’ll give me a hint for a story about the figure in the painting.
Normally, the gist of the story is not terribly difficult to pluck from the painting or photo. Sometimes, though, I’ll start the story without a clear picture of where I will take the plot. I know the essence, but the ending initially eludes me. Ultimately, the ending has always found fertile ground in my mind to take root.
For this post, I’ve included two images, the first a painting of a long-haired woman wearing a Sherlock Holmes-style long-coat and a man’s dress hat, and the second… a photo of a woman lying on her back, smoke rising from her mouth. The painting reminds me of a noir film like The Naked City. It’s night and shadows rule, except where the woman leans against a brick wall. There, light illuminates her. It’s Christmastime… wreaths and other greenery decorate storefronts; near a neon sign flashing the word Diner, holiday lights twinkle above the sidewalk. Who is she and why is she there? That’s the heart and soul of what my tale will reveal. Right now, it’s still in my head, but come March 22 I promise it’ll be written and posted on Writing Wranglers & Warriors. In the meantime, be thinking of the tale you’d extract from the painting. Maybe you can share a synopsis of it in the comments section of my March 22 post.
The photo of the woman exhaling smoke appears to be a puzzler. Appears… and then again maybe not. It’s opaque enough that a writer can make it into anything he or she desires. There’s eight million stories nestled in a typical image, right? This one has sixteen million.
Look closely at the black-and-white image. The woman isn’t dressed provocatively. She wears an unbuttoned shirt or sweater, revealing a not-particularly sexy bra. The shot is framed so tight I can’t tell if she’s on a mattress, couch, rug or something else entirely. Is she in a house or outside somewhere? Who knows?
So, as a writer, I can make the setting whatever I like. It can be in a fantasy world or it can be contemporary Earth circa 2015. The woman can be the POV or you can choose someone else just outside camera range to provide an account of how smoke came to float from her mouth. If her lover, do the tendrils of smoke symbolize how their bodies just moments before were entwined in passion. As suggested earlier, maybe the setting is an alternate world and this woman is a sorceress who has snared an unsuspecting dupe in her trap. The smoke’s a spell that’s about to turn lovemaking into painful death. Truly, it can be any story I want – and still be true to the image.
Sometime between now and March 22 I will write a story for the smoking woman and post it to my Facebook author’s page. I’ll link to it from my Mike Staton FB timeline and from my March 22 Writing Wranglers & Warriors post.
So stay tuned to see what I come up with for the two images. And you’re more than welcome to do your own short stories so we can see what came out of our heads. Just remember… write your story so stands on its own without the image – in case you decide to include it in an anthology.