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Fact, Film and Fiction

By Dennis Palumbo

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All the other patients called her Angie the Android. Angie was a deeply delusional teenage girl who believed she was actually a machine. Like Pinocchio, her biggest and only dream was to become a real person.

I met Angie the very first week of my internship at a private psychiatric hospital in West L.A.. She was one of dozens of schizophrenic patients I worked with at this final stage of my training to be a psychotherapist. It was a thrilling, challenging, enlightening and ultimately humbling couple of years. (Even though my former career as a Hollywood screenwriter, working with various film producers and studio executives, had already given me valuable experience dealing with psychotics.)

This was many years ago. Now I’m a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, but I wove some of the situations and people I encountered during my clinical training into my first crime novel, Mirror Image (2010, Poisoned Pen Press). For starters, the book’s hero, Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, is a psychologist. And--though the story is set in Pittsburgh, my home town, instead of Los Angeles--much of the action takes place in a hospital similar to the one at which I interned.
In fact, I’ve taken many aspects of that time in my life and used them to ground my story and characters in reality. For example, Rinaldi’s best friend, Noah Frye, is a paranoid schizophrenic, his delusions tempered by medication (when he stays on it). Foul-mouthed, funny, and disconcertingly intuitive, this character is based on another real patient with whom I worked.

Likewise, a number of my patients were the children or grandchildren of some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the country. The state-of-the-art care these patients received was often in direct proportion to the money and influence wielded by their prominent relatives. Drawing on this aspect of my experience there, I created the character of the biotech giant Miles Wingfield, using his twisted relationship with his own troubled heirs as a significant element of the plot.
In a similar way, aspects of my experience in my private practice over the past 24 years contributed to the plot and characters in my second Rinaldi thriller, Fever Dream (2011, also from Poisoned Pen Press). As will no doubt be the case with Night Terrors, the next Rinaldi novel, which I’m working on now.
Yet, while my clinical  experience influences the content of my crime novels, something else, concerning the writing itself, needs to be acknowledged—the very fact that I’d been a screenwriter for so many years. Though I want my prose writing to be as graceful and vivid as possible, I also want each novel to be a satisfying thriller; i.e., to actually provide thrills. To reflect the staccato rhythm and suspenseful pace that a murder investigation, played out against a ticking clock, would actually have.

Moreover, I want the characters to be rich and varied, and for the dialogue to be both witty and trenchant, urgent and grave. To accomplish a lot with a little. To have style, and subtext.

In other words, like every other terrified, ambitious, and self-absorbed writer, I want the books to be as good as they could be.

Of course, whether Mirror Image and Fever Dream deliver on these lofty goals is for the reader to decide. However, to whatever extent the books succeed, I think I owe a great debt to my experience writing film scripts. I really believe that whatever narrative skills I have as a prose writer were enhanced and refined by all the years I spent laboring over countless drafts of numerous screenplays. From pitching, writing, re-writing, and then re-writing that.

Let’s face it: great scripts are about structure and dialogue. Both have to be solid, compelling, and just realistic enough to have verisimilitude. Whether you’re writing a sci-fi adventure, a multi-part fantasy adventure, an R-rated comedy or a low-budget horror film, a good script has to be grounded in a kind of internal logic. Things and people have to behave in believable ways, even in---or especially in---unbelievable situations.

Take a great sci-fi script. Whatever planet the story takes place on, there has to be a tonal and factual consistency. A hundred decisions that you, the writer, have to make---and stick to. No gravity or zero gravity? Oxygen or no oxygen? A good place to live and work, or a nightmare on the edge of the galaxy? Not to mention characterizations that you have to invest with life; i.e. people who act like people, even when they’re interacting with aliens.  

The skill to make all these elements come together in a powerful, exciting and cohesive way is what the craft of screenwriting demands.

Which is exactly my point. Good novels--especially crime novels—have the same requirements. And there’s no better, more demanding, less forgiving way to school yourself in acquiring these skills than writing in the Hollywood marketplace.
Not that these were the only benefits provided by my former career. The continuous rejection, condescension, uncertainty and myriad of other ego-destroying aspects of the Hollywood screenwriter’s life offered a helpful, illuminating glimpse of the trials to come in trying to get published.

Trust me, that thick skin you develop after years in show business comes in quite handy when hacking your way through the brambles of the publishing jungle.

Which brings me back to Angie the Android. Believe it or not, we’re all a bit like Angie. We all want, in both our lives and our work, to be real. Authentic. For most writers I know, myself included, it is—as it was for Angie--our biggest and only dream.

That’s why I’m grateful I got to know her, all those years ago. Just as I’m grateful for my experiences as a screenwriter. Because everything we’ve ever done informs who we are, how we think, what we write. 

Allen Ginsberg once said that our only job in life is to track our consciousness. If that’s true for everyone, it’s especially true for those of us who feel the need not only to keep track, but to write it down...

About Dennis Palumbo

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year, Welcome Back, Kotter), Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His first crime novel, Mirror Image, was published by Poisoned Pen Press. The sequel, Fever Dream, appeared in 2011. Visit his website for more information.

Screenwriting Article by Dennis Palumbo

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