JAMES SCOTT BELL
is the bestselling author of Try Dying, Try Darkness,
No Legal Grounds, Presumed Guilty, Glimpses of Paradise, Breach of
Promise and several other thrillers. He is a winner of the
Award for Excellence (Suspense category), and has also been a finalist
for the award in the Historical category. He has served as the fiction
columnist for Writers Digest magazine and has written two bestselling
craft books in the Writers Digest series Write Great Fiction: Plot
Structure and Revision & Self-Editing.
He taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers
conferences, and has written over 300
articles and numerous books for the legal profession. He has had three
feature screenplays optioned and is on the faculty of Act One, the
Hollywood screenwriting program.
Why I Write Suspense
You add “What if . . .” to news items and billboards, snatches of conversations and chance meetings...
Why do I write suspense?
I’ll tell you later.
See how easy it is?
Not. In reality, suspense is one of the toughest genres to get right. But it’s what I love, and that’s why I write it.
You should always write what you love.
Even more specifically, write what you love to read.
That meant you had to read the next chapter!
A little device the Boys’ publisher put in its style guide. Yes, it was a bit ham-fisted. But I didn’t care. I read the things because I wanted to know—had to know!—what happened next.
Later, I started reading the hard-boiled school: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain. Suspense, mystery, what happens next?
And watching film noir of the 40s and 50s: Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Asphalt Jungle.
These were the books and movies I loved, so that’s what I decided to write.
I sniff around for ideas that lend themselves to suspense.
These ideas are everywhere. You add “What if . . .” to news items and billboards, snatches of conversations and chance meetings. Do this, and you can find dozens of ideas a week. Even a day, if you’re really looking.
Years ago I read a little item in the Los Angeles Times. A man shot his wife in South Central, then drove to a freeway overpass, got out, shot himself, and fell one hundred feet to the freeway below. His body hit a car, killing the driver.
I clipped the story and threw it into my “idea box.” This holds notes and clippings and thoughts scribbled on napkins. I go through it from time to time, asking “What if . . .” and looking for fresh connections.
The LA story didn’t go away. I kept thinking about it. So one day I wrote page one. I had no idea where it was going after that:
On a wet Tuesday morning in December, Ernesto Bonilla, twenty-eight, shot his twenty-three-year-old wife, Alejandra, in the backyard of their West 45th Street home in South Los Angeles. As Alejandra lay bleeding to death, Ernesto proceeded to drive their Ford Explorer to the westbound Century Freeway connector where it crossed over the Harbor Freeway and pulled to a stop on the shoulder.
After I wrote that, I wondered if I could pin a novel on the back end. I wondered who would be most affected by the death of the driver. It took me a while, but I finally came up with a character named Tyler Buchanan, a high-flying LA lawyer. That’s when I wrote the next part of the opening:
This would have been simply another dark and strange coincidence, the sort of thing that shows up for a two minute report on the local news—with live remote from the scene—and maybe gets a follow-up the next day. But eventually the story would go away, fading from the city’s collective memory.
That was the foundation for what is now a series.
When I wrote my six book historical series featuring Kit Shannon (the first three cowritten with Tracie Peterson), I saw them as legal thrillers, but set in the past.
I loved doing those books. Courtrooms were wide open in the early 1900s, especially in Los Angeles, and women were just getting into the profession. There was plenty of room for “What ifs . . .”
I also loved doing a stand-alone historical, Glimpses of Paradise.
The vagaries of the publishing business, however, forced me to make a choice. These days publishers (and readers, too, mostly) want consistency in their authors. So I choose to concentrate, for the time being, on contemporary thrillers, my first love.
And who knows? Kit Shannon may return. In my mind she lives into the 1960s, still practicing law. A treasure trove of suspense material in the decades from 1920 to 1960 is waiting to be developed into stories. It was an exciting time to practice law in LA.
In fact, there has never been a time in this town when it wasn’t exciting to practice law.
Which is why I live here. And write here.
Visit Jim’s Web site at www.jamesscottbell.com.