James Ewing and Bonnie Biafore - What’s So Funny About Murder?
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What’s So Funny About Murder?
When Bonnie Biafore and I set out to write Fresh Squeezed we had to face one unyielding truth: by giving up the crime-comedy genre’s Holy Land of Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, we were well and truly screwed. This tri-city trifecta of stupid criminality is the font in which such greats as Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, and Elmore Leonard have splashed and played while they built successful careers telling stories about the dopes who got caught. By setting our story in eastern Washington State, a place where apparently nothing has ever happened, we had to sit down, bang our heads together, and come up with the answer to a simple question: What makes crime funny?
The answer in a nutshell: Nothing.
The crime itself isn’t funny, but when you take an unusual setting, a totally random criminal mind, and an unexpected outcome, mix them thoroughly and filter through the Law of Unintended Consequences, crime can be a hoot . Fiction writers that we are, once we realized this, we had to make stuff up, and quick.
In Chapter One the crime that sets the story happens. An idyllic scene. Two men fishing on the river below the cliffs. A shot. A scream. Another shot and silence. From above, a body plummets into the icy water, followed quickly by a giant fiberglass hotdog and an equally large smallmouth bass.
The hotdog pins our hero to the deck of his boat. The bass seems to scoff at his predicament. The hero’s sidekick has been launched to shore and he scrambles to get help. Is this the end? Has our hero been reduced to so much collateral damage?
Of course not. It’s his name on the front of the book and we’re on – what? – like page nine.
One of the rules any writer is forced to work under is that you can’t peak too soon. The story has to build to its conclusion, or in our case concussion, and, while the action may pause for breath, it has to keep building. Which means, in the absurd spirit of crime-comedy, things have to keep getting weirder. And weirder.
Enter Ralphie Hinz.
It’s just a third of the way through the book. The bad guys and their Evil Plot have been hinted at. But it’s a small town and nobody wants to be seen offing the people who know too much. So they turn to the outside for a hired gun, and they find him – on craigslist.
Ralphie, who may be Bonnie’s and my favorite character, is a classic example of how a character evolves from first conception to printed page. We knew he had to be stupid, we knew he had to want to kill, and we knew he had to be absurd. Stupid was easy, I’ve been doing it for so long I could write that in my sleep. Killing was in his blood, but his previous job as a pest control specialist was cut short when he sprayed a poodle thinking it was a rat. Down on his luck and almost out of drugs, he posts an ad and is quickly hired to clean things up in Wanaduck. So far so good, but we have to make him absurd and, at the same time, make him someone with whom the readers can identify – at least those not yet involved in criminal behavior.
Let’s give him a pet. Okay, what kind of pet? A cat! Too James Bond. A dog? Nah, we’ve already got a couple of dogs. Then what? A ferret! Okay, that’s weird but is it absurd? It’s an alcoholic ferret named Mr. Willie. Bingo!
And to enable the reader to identify with Ralphie, we have him treat Mr. Willie just like everyone treats their pets. A ride in the car. Snacks from the Café Ta-Ta’s drive through. A half-pint of Cuervo Gold in the glove box... All the usual stuff.
With the right setting: unexpected and bizarre; and the right characters: absurd to the point of believability; even murder can be funny.
Just as long as it’s not yours.
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Bonnie Biafore is a project manager and author of 23, er, make that 24 books, numerous training courses, and hundreds of articles on personal finance, project management, technology, and now, stupid criminals. She lives on a mountain in Colorado. Find out more at bonniebiafore.com.
James Ewing writes a weekly blog loosely based on the proposition that life is really much more absurd than we know. Several of his humorous articles based on his seven-year sailing adventure have been published in Latitudes & Attitudes magazine. He currently lives in western Washington State, isolated on an island, because it’s really better for everyone that way.