Eight million stories in the naked city

This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.

This post has been written by me, Mike Staton.

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.

The late 1940s film "Naked City" ended with the classic saying, "There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." I'm always trying to find stories in paintings and photos.

The late 1940s film “Naked City” ended with the classic saying, “There are 8 million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” I’m always trying to find stories in paintings and photos.

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.

This woman leaning against the brick wall during the Christmas season has a story to tell... I just have to finesse it from the painting.

This woman leaning against the brick wall during the Christmas season has a story to tell… I just have to finesse it from the painting.

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.

The smoke twirling upward from this woman's mouth holds a tale. I admit... I haven't found it yet. But I promise... I will.

The smoke twirling upward from this woman’s mouth holds a tale. I admit… I haven’t found it yet. But I promise… I will.

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.

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23 Responses to Eight million stories in the naked city

  1. Wranglers says:

    Mike, thank you so much. My mind is swirling with ideas, after you talked about your process. I’m still thinking onthe first one, besides the obvious PI take. The second one I’m thinking an evil character. She inhales air and at will turns it into a poisonous gas that doesn’t affect her, but that play havoc on her victim. She’s beautiful, and alluring, but underneath her sex appeal lies a devious mind in search of total control. Lol. I guess I could go on & on. Thanks and I love the images. Speaking of anthologies, I have one coming up. It’s All About the Girls, all about the girls–No boys. The first story that we have accepted is a love story. You aleady have a great love story you could submit. Cher’ley

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  2. Pingback: Eight million stories in the naked city | Writing Wranglers and Warriors

  3. Wranglers says:

    I have shared this in all of our share this click boxes listed at the bottom of the blog. Nice info for writers, especially beginners. Cher’ley

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  4. Reblogged this on L.LEANDER BOOKS and commented:
    Great post from Writing Wranglers and Warriors written by Author Mike Staton.

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  5. Very interesting post Mike. We used to do something like this in my Writer’s Group in Mazatlan. Of course, we had like 15 min to complete. When we read our story it’s amazing how different they all were! I like what you’ve found to inspire you and can’t wait until the 22nd when I can read the story. Thank you for sharing this with us. Gets the creative juices flowing!

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Yep, a facilitator for Henderson Writers group does writing prompts the third wed of every month. Usually, he picks an exercise from one of his books on creative writing. The last one I attended was on doing a story as a diarist. So far he hasn’t asked us to pick out a story from what’s happening in an image.

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  6. Neva Bodin says:

    I actually started writing as a teen using this method, using short excerpts or photos in a newspaper. It was really liberating and fun. You have a great imagination and what a fun idea and challenge for the rest of us. Intriguing photos.

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  7. Gayle Irwin says:

    Mike, I admire you — your talent for capturing stories from photos and how your imagination takes flight from a simple photo is incredible. Thank you for sharing your insights into technique and where to find creative fodder; I’ve yet to visit Pintrest … now I have a reason! Looking forward to reading your creations this month!

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks, Gayle. Now I actually have to work some on my novel WIP. Hope to do some revisions to chapters tonight and tomorrow, then start doing a story on one of the photos in this blog post — and start thinking about a story for Cherley’s anthology. Busy times.

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  8. Doris says:

    I do enjoy seeing how creativity bubbles up in others. I also love the photos. May have to do something with them. That is after I finish the three or is it four that my publisher is expecting. We will see, but in the meantime, I look forward to what comes from you fertile imagination and pen. Doris

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  9. Nancy Jardine says:

    I find Pinterest is a great distraction, Mike, but it’s obviously a great tool, as you show, for the short story writer. I tend to use Pinterest images to enhance already written articles, or posts about my novels, but I can see a way of linking your ‘encapsualtions’ idea from a photo in a sort of ‘what if’ way to further introduce my characters. Thanks for that!

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  10. sstamm625 says:

    Really interesting, Mike, and definitely story-filled photos. Your process reminds me of DaVinci saying he created his sculptures by removing what wasn’t necessary to reveal what was in the stone. You are adding the words to reveal what is behind the pictures.

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  11. Kathy Waller says:

    “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.”

    “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.”

    In those statements I see the courage of the writer–promising to post a story that you don’t even know yet. I’m not an experienced writer of fiction, and when I start with almost nothing and produce a complete story, I have no idea (or I forget) how I did it, and I’m always afraid I won’t be able to do it again. And that makes me a little crazy. I admire your confidence. Does it come from experience, or have you always known the story will become clear?

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    • Mike Staton says:

      Experience from knowing it will become clear. When working on a novel, I do plot out a general outline, then expand on the outline as I write the chapters. But I’m not afraid to divert from the outline if I decide a character should do something different from what I originally envisioned. Yes… that usually means the rest of the outline will need to be revised. Lol.

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  12. S. J. Brown says:

    I look forward to reading what you come up with. I always enjoy your stories. If time permits I may even try my hand at a little fiction writing.

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