Friday, October 17, 2014

School for Scandal

I’d like to introduce Sheila York who is our Guest Blogger today on Author Expressions. After a long career in radio and TV, Sheila York began writing novels combining her love of history, mysteries and the movies. Set in glamorous, dangerous post-war Hollywood, her series features screenwriter/reluctant heiress/amateur sleuth Lauren Atwill (and her lover, private detective Peter Winslow) chasing killers in the Great Golden Age of Film. You can read or listen to more about Lauren and No Broken Hearts, the fourth book in the Lauren Atwill mystery series, at
Okay, here’s Sheila!

School for Scandal

I love scandals. When I hear or read about one, I have three thoughts: “Could I use this in a book?” “Would it work in the 1940s?” and “How could I make what happened even worse?”
Bear in mind, I mean a good scandal. I don’t mean modern-day celebrity gossip: Doping, divorcing, gaining 10 pounds. There are rarely dramatic possibilities in the predictable.
‘Novel’, after all, didn’t come from the Latin for ‘heard that one before.’
Three of my four Lauren Atwill mysteries were inspired by scandals, even if by the time I finished, you wouldn’t recognize the source.
For NO BROKEN HEARTS, I had a (really) vague idea that the story would involve Lauren’s being loaned out to a second-rate studio by Marathon, the major studio with which she’d just signed a contract. During the period of the ‘studio system’, studios produced films on their own lots using talent under often long-term contracts. Those contracts permitted the studios to loan out the talent, who’d have no say in the matter. They could refuse, but then they’d be suspended without pay. Or sued. Or both. Studios could keep their stars in line – even to the extent of making them get married or break up with lovers the studios deemed inappropriate – by threatening to loan them to second- and even third-tier studios.
My amateur sleuth’s screenwriting talents have for years been relegated to script-doctoring because she compromised a promising career trying to save her marriage to a philandering star. Promised her first screen credit in years, Lauren would be rightly furious about being loaned out. And then immediately scared that somebody’d noticed that recently when she signs on to ‘doctor’ a film, somebody dies. Those kinds of whispers could kill a career in a hurry, especially a struggling one. There is no place more superstitious than Lauren’s Hollywood.
It was a start, but I’d need a murder.
Hollywood took care of its own with a singular intensity in the Golden Age, the studios having so much invested in their stars. Studio publicity teams crafted stories to fit movie fans’ fantasies and handed them to reporters and magazine writers, who mostly played along. There wasn’t as much profit in humiliation back then. Not that reporters were higher minded. And not that there weren’t magazines that wallowed in tawdry sex stories (we meet one of these photographers in NO BROKEN HEARTS). But for mainstream publications, writers (and their editors) knew which side they wanted their bread buttered on, and it wasn’t the side that hit the carpet. For those who cooperated, the perks were substantial – cash; invitations to premieres, parties and yachts; exclusive stories; being welcomed as a friend by he-man stars and beautiful women.  (Note the blurb for the story inside about Gene Tierney’s ‘Switch to Sex’. It’s not likely to deliver the implied steam. By the way, the actress on the cover is Dorothy Lamour.)
The scandal that inspired me to NO BROKEN HEARTS is a Hollywood rumor from the Golden Age of Film that a legendary star (whose name I won’t repeat because I doubt this story) once killed someone in a hit and run. Because there was a crushed fender and witnesses with a license number, one version of the story goes, the star’s studio forced an underling to confess to being behind the wheel and to serve manslaughter time by giving him money, promising him future employment, and making clear they’d make sure he never got another job in Hollywood if he didn’t. And the star let them do it.
How could I make all that even worse?
Well, first off, it wouldn’t be a hit and run. It would be murder. Premeditated, brutal murder. And the studio would cover it up. Lauren would of course find the body. And be threatened to keep her mouth shut. But being Lauren, she wouldn’t cover up for a killer. Soooooo, there’d have to be a reason she couldn’t go to the police. What if the star were not only someone she adores, but also someone she believes is innocent? What if he claims he didn’t do it, and she saw things at the crime scene that make her think he’s telling the truth? If she talks, at best, she’d ruin him and end her own career as well. At worst, she could end up sending an innocent man to the gas chamber.
What if she couldn’t trust the police? Could they be involved in the cover-up? Police corruption was endemic in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Film. Payoffs, cover-ups, frame-ups. And Hollywood was awash in bribe money. (While the scandal pictured in this headline isn’t Hollywood-related, it’s one of my favorites. It turned out cops planted the bomb because the guy was investigating police corruption for a private citizen. Fortunately, they failed to kill him.)
What could be worse than knowing a killer is out there, but you’d never work again if you opened your month and you might ruin an innocent man, and you couldn’t trust the cops to find the killer? The killer could decide the best way to save himself is to kill the witness. That had possibilities.

*Sheila is giving away 20 copies of No Broken Hearts on Goodreads  
 (register to win until October 31)!

 Comments or questions for Sheila are welcome.


Janis Susan May Patterson said...

The series sounds absolutely wonderful. Good and bad, the Golden Age of Hollywood was a fascinating time.

Sheila York said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sheila York said...

Thanks. The money, the sex, the license. The necessary hypocrisy to maintain the images. How could bad thing NOT happen?

Sharon Ervin said...

Fascinating. Sheila York has uncovered a gold mine of plots and characters that should sustain her, her readers, and maybe other writers, for decades. Great idea, especially with York's background. Scandals in historical Hollywood is a whole new frontier.

Linda Andrews said...

What a fascinating time period and I love that your books are loosely based on old rumors. Where do you find the rumors? From old newspapers or biographies?

Triss said...

A really fascinating look behind the curtain, Sheila. And the "how to make it worse" is classic plotting advice. thanks for giving such a clear example.

Kate Gallison said...

So, the tennis game where the starlets all played in their slips while the drooling moguls watched them. Did you make that up? Or was it a rumor?

Sheila York said...

Kate: The playing in their slips might be an example of how I DIDN'T make things worse. What went on at some Hollywood parties when the booze was flowing...

Sheila York said...

LINDA: Newspapers rarely covered salacious rumors. Salacious facts, however, were another matter - such as Mary Astor's torrid-affair diary entries coming out during her divorce. And in LA, as a company town, they gave the studios much more leeway to stay OUT of the headlines. Most of the rumors come from books about Hollywood. One does have to be careful. Because incidents were rarely reported in mainstream press, and therefore subjected to at least some proof-scrutiny, vicious rumors sometimes get into books that are completely unfounded. This is why I would never think of passing them on as fact, and naming names.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This sounds like a terrific series. I liked your walk-through how you developed the story. Can't wait to see the first book.

Sheila York said...

Thanks, Susan. I appreciate it so much when readers want to go back to the first book! Of course, you don't need to start there.

D'Ann said...

Books sound wonderful! Awhile back I got hooked on all this documentaries of stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was crazy the stuff that went on back then!

Sheila York said...

D'Ann: I love that stuff. And yes, crazy stuff went on then (as now). A lot of it I can't put in a book and keep it PG-13. BTW, I recommend the latest bio on John Wayne by Scott Eyman if you're a Wayne fan (which I am) & if you've never read Lauren Bacall's autobio By Myself (came out in the late 1970s), I do recommend. Miss Bacall is of course the source of my heroine's name.

Sheila York said...

I've had such a good tine. Thanks to you all! I'll be checking in all evening, so any comments will be seen and replied to.

Karen McCullough said...

The book sounds terrific! I look forward to reading it.

Sheila York said...

KAREN: thanks so much. This has been a great day.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Sheila, I remember some of those scandals and rumors of scandals from the days when movie magazines were so popular and Hollywood was so mysterious and, we thought, naughty. This sounds like an excellent series.

Thanks for hosting Sheila here, Jacqueline. And now to make my TBR list grow a little longer....

Carole Price said...

What a fabulous series. The Golden Age of Hollywood has always interested me.

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

I love old movies, so this series will be at the top of my tbr list. Thanks Sheila and Jacquie for bringing The Golden Age to light.

Sheila York said...

Patricia, Carole & Mary: I'm sorry I didn't get to reply yesterday. I was on a library panel in Chatham NJ then on to Philadelphia for a birthday bash for my best friend. Then I went for a hike to burn off the calories. 2 hours of hiking will burn off all that wine and second helpings, right? And the brunch? I'm afraid I just now got settled back into checking up on things. Thank you for your kind words and enthusiasm.

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