One of the first movies I saw in a theater was Walt Disney’s Cinderella. At the time, I was young enough to be fascinated by small animals and indifferent to members of the opposite sex. So I was particularly intrigued by the part of the movie where Cinderella and her little animal friends scrounged enough discarded material—ribbons, beads, and such—to construct a presentable ball gown. After Cinderella got slapped down for her efforts, her fairy godmother supplied the spectacular replacement ensemble that caught the eye of the prince. You know the rest.
Years later, I realized that Cinderella was pretty passive after that first failed attempt to manage her own destiny. Her principal virtues were industry and grace under fire. But her ultimate success was more the result of her godmother’s generosity, and the prince’s obsessive crush, than her own efforts.
Even at a young age, I was inclined to identify with active heroines. But there weren’t many of those when I was little. In books and movies—at least the ones I was exposed to, women pretty much got rescued or played supporting roles à la Dale Evans. Nancy Drew was okay, but she always relied on Ned or her dad to bail her out of whatever she charged into. The Hardy Boys were more to my liking because I was impressed by what men got to do. When Wonder Woman finally came to prime-time TV, I was an avid fan. (But why did she have to wear that stupid costume?)
I didn’t think about Cinderella for decades—until Jim Huang asked me what classics had influenced me as a writer. By that time, I’d studied history and literature, and discovered Joseph Campbell. And I realized that all stories are reiterations of a few basic plots. What makes a writer great is her particular spin.
Where Cinderella comes in—at least to my story—is her example of recycling objects discarded in her environment to make something new and beautiful. Most of my stories rely on such bits—snatches of overheard conversation ("I must've been wearin' my beer goggles when I picked her up."); slightly out-of-the-ordinary events (The time the cat brought a live mouse into the house and lost it.); poignant or unbelievable news items (A crash on the interstate liberated 500 chickens); or striking or eccentric individuals (Like the poised young woman, “Lady,” singing Billie Holiday tunes on the Jackson Street Red Line platform. And the disconcerting Colin Farrell look-alike with the fresh-water-pearl-and-platinum bracelet that looked like something Paris Hilton might wear to the Oscars.) . Writing, for me, isn’t so much creating a linear narrative as it is solving a problem—like working one of those 5000-piece-giant-jigsaw puzzles—reaching into the puzzle box of my head for something to fill in a border or match that spot of red in the center.
My finished dress may not be as flashy as the fairy godmother’s, but I’ve stitched it together on my own. And I have Cinderella to thank for her example.
ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: For those who don’t already know that real forensics isn’t CSI, Connie Fletcher has come out with a terrific new book—EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). Ms. Fletcher will be the guest speaker at the next MWA Meeting (see www.mwamidwest.org/).
Also The Skokie Public Library will host Jan Girten, Deputy Director of the Chicago Division of the Illinois State Crime Lab Forensic Center, Edgar winning author Jan Burke, and me, Thursday, September 7, at 7:30 pm.