Sunday, April 28, 2024

Guest Post: Could this be the beginning of a great friendship? The making of a novella … by M.E. Proctor

Please welcome M. E. Proctor to the blog today…



Could this be the beginning of a great friendship?

The making of a novella …


By M.E. Proctor



I don’t know how often I’ve heard these words: We should do something together. Considering I’m neither into bank robbery, quilting bees, or barn raising, the suggestion always has some relationship with a writing project. It is also always comfortably vague and about as binding as the clichéd “let’s do lunch one of these days”.


I’m not sure why an innocuous social media chat on December 12, 2023, with writer friend Russell Thayer turned into something completely different.


On that cold December day, Russ typed: “Tom should go after Gunselle someday. Imagine the interrogation scene!”


The comment wasn’t completely out of the blue. Russ is the author of over twenty short stories featuring the contract killer nicknamed “Gunselle”. She’s a hot hit number. All the stories take place between the late 1930s and the early 1950s. Russ had a new one coming out and I had just placed a piece of retro noir at The Yard Crime Blog. The coincidence was the spark that started our conversation. My recurrent character (a dozen stories so far) is Tom Keegan, a homicide detective in 1950 San Francisco.


As it often happens in a chat, when both parties have time and like to talk craft, we got into a fun back-and-forth. We threw a few plot ideas against the wall. What if she’s hired to bump him off. What if they’re after the same killer…

It didn’t go any further that day. Or the next. It didn’t go anywhere until January 30.


We must have both been unconsciously chewing on the idea of bringing our two characters together, à la CSI meets NCIS, because we picked up our chat right where we left it six weeks earlier.


Neither of us had ever written anything in collaboration. How it would work, who would do what, was there a process, a kind of division of labor … could we pull it off, would we fight over stuff, shout at each other through email? We didn’t talk about any of that. All we knew was that we wanted to write a story with our characters in the lead roles. What that story might be, we had no idea. We weren’t flying completely blind however. Russ had read my Keegan pieces and I knew everything about Gunselle’s dangerous life. Our writing styles were different but not jarringly so, and we were improvising in the same time period with a strong flavor of classic crime fiction. If there were rough edges in the writing, they could be polished off later once the story was laid out.


We brainstormed a few ideas and decided to build the story around a political assassination that would involve both characters, coming at it from their respective angles. The detective investigating the case, in straight procedural fashion, and the contract killer being embroiled in it sideways, yet not guilty of the crime.


Russ sent me a snippet of Gunselle being hired for a job she disliked—fixing somebody else’s mess, i.e. the assassination—and a few days later, I sent him Tom’s arrival at the crime scene, the ballroom of a luxury hotel. The suspect was a musician in the jazz band hired for the event.


These simple first steps turned out to have an enormous impact on the structure and the vibe of the story.


It would be told from a double point of view (POV). Each of us writing scenes from the perspective of our protagonists. It felt natural and we never discussed that choice or had any reason to revisit it later. It worked and we could write in the particular voice of our characters, which took care of the differences in our writing styles.


Everybody knows that most of the research should be done before starting to write a story, it’s a lot more efficient, but we were both eager to get something going. Now, with two scenes drafted, we had to make sure we were historically correct on the when and the where.


It was a stroke of luck to find out that 1951 was an election year. That November, San Francisco re-elected the incumbent republican mayor. It put a time stamp on the assassination and the identity of the victim: June, at a fundraiser for the democratic mayoral candidate. The Palace Hotel is conveniently located downtown, with a good size ballroom. An internet deep dive delivered period-accurate floorplans. We were in business. We knew when, where and who, but like our two lead actors, we were stumped by the motive. Why was Charles Forrester shot? We wouldn’t find out for a while.


Writing a story is like a treasure hunt. Every sentence, written on the fly, contains potential clues. Here’s an example. The decision to make the killer a jazz trumpeter gave the plot a definite slant. It also gave us the opportunity to dig into the rich Bay Area music scene of the early 50s, the various clubs, the talent on display, the racial tensions, the lure of the city at night, the early involvement of the Mob in the drug trade. Russ had touched on the music angle in some of his stories and brought all that background into the plot, with great secondary characters. One of them, Maggie, became central to nailing down the motive and the final resolution. Through Maggie, we also brought in the war, only six years in the past, and its aftermath, how deeply it scarred many characters in the story.


Very soon, the project got bigger, a lot longer than a short story, maybe not a book, but close.


During the two months it took to complete a solid first draft (I’m writing this in mid-April, we’re in the final polishing stage, and the word count sits at 50,000), we had a couple of mini-debates, all of them civil and considerate. One of them was about who would enter the scene first.

Homicide cops always get there after the fact, it’s the nature of the job. We decided to start with Gunselle and put her at the scene, at the very beginning, before the shots ring out. That was the story hook. She was hired for the hit and somebody beat her to it. She’s pocketed the down payment. For doing nothing. As a professional, it sticks in her craw.


Another discussion was about the key scene where we bring our two characters together. Up to that moment, they’d both been going through their moves separately, with only a glancing accidental contact that showed mutual interest. Yes, this is where it gets sexy … Who would write that hot scene, in whose POV? We briefly considered writing it twice, in a “he says, she says” tango, but it proved clunky. I wrote the initial scene, from Tom’s voice, then Russ took it and turned it around. It worked a lot better that way, Gunselle initiated the event and was the more active character.


Those were the only scenes that required a decision on who does what. The rest flowed naturally. After writing separate scenes for a couple of weeks, we built a master document that we carried all through to the end, highlighting changes, giving each other a go at adjusting things. Our different writing styles became apparent. Russ writes snappy action scenes and I tend to be atmospheric. Using the master document, we started blending things. He added bite to my stuff and I added background.


As the story evolved, the beginning needed continuous revisions. It’s the inevitable result of not having an outline, of letting the story be told by the characters to be taken wherever it wants to go. Somebody will throw a curve ball once in a while and provoke a scramble. It keeps things fresh and exciting.


Mid-way through the process, having a timeline became critical. The characters were all in motion and the investigation picked up speed. A detailed timeline helped us figure out the ending. None of what happens in the last act was in the cards from the start.


We’re now done with the novella, except for minor tweaking, and as I look back on the collaboration, I wouldn’t change a thing in the way we proceeded. The time taken in considering options, writing them and discarding parts of them, might appear to be a waste but was crucial in coming up with the best solution. Multiple iterations, trial and error. It happens the same way when writers work individually (unless they’re rigorous plotters). The fun of the collaboration is having your partner put something on the table that you would not have come up with on your own.


And, in closing, the personalities have to match … that is the secret sauce. Unfortunately, there’s no readily available recipe for that.


The title of the novella is “Bop City Nocturne”. Will there be more? When will it be published? To be continued …


What Russell says …


Martine asked me to slide in with a comment or two. When I first brought up the idea of Gunselle and Keegan appearing in a story together, it was in a joking way, but it did seem appropriate. Both characters move through the hilly streets of San Francisco at the same time. They might have stood on the same ground at some point, one with a pistol in her hand, then the other, later, with a notebook and a furrowed brow under his fedora.


I knew Martine liked to do the research, as do I, and though I was joking a little when I suggested the idea, I was hoping she would say yes. And I’m glad she did, because this project, whether it ever comes to print, has been a joy from beginning to end. No struggles, except for me keeping up with my partner, who is an extremely fast worker. Our styles are a little different. She writes longer scenes, full of detail and observation. I like mine short and jazzy, with lots of humor. I write a little differently now that I’ve watched Martine’s process, and we’ve both had fun working with each other’s characters. May I add that there is some natural sexual tension between these two Bop City toughies? And though they ply their trade on opposite sides of the law, and live by their own rules, they manage to find common ground as they pursue the villains.


As Martine says, perhaps this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Cut to: Gunselle and Tom walking into the mist.



Read a Gunselle story here: Par for the Course (Urban Pigs Press).

Read a Tom Keegan story here: Footwork (Mystery Tribune). He also takes the lead in A Redhead and a Green Car in the great “Motel” Anthology from Cowboy Jamboree.



M. E. Proctor ©2024


M.E. Proctor’s short story collection Family and Other Ailments is available in all the usual places. She’s currently working on a contemporary PI series. The first book, Love You Till Tuesday, comes out from Shotgun Honey in 2024. Her short fiction has appeared in VautrinBristol Noir, Mystery TribuneReckon ReviewBlack Cat Weekly, and Thriller Magazine among others. She’s a Derringer nominee. Website:

Russell Thayer’s stories have been published in magazines such as Bristol Noir, Apocalypse Confidential, and Shotgun Honey. A “Gunselle” collection is in the works. Find him on Twitter @RussellThayer10. 

1 comment:

Laura Elvebak said...

Wonderful post. Look forward to seeing it published. I've collaborated on a screenplays, and it was fun and eye-opening. Best to you both.