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Life Lessons

Making It Up as I Go Along

The author of such classics as Get Shorty and Out of Sight advises writers: the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline. To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.

I think of characters who will carry a story. The plot comes out of the characters, their attitudes. How they talk describes who they are. Dialogue, in fact, is the element that keeps the story moving. Characters are judged as they appear. Anyone who can't hold up his or her end of a conversation is liable to be shelved, or maybe shot.

In 1995 my researcher, Gregg Sutter, handed me a photo of a deputy U.S. marshal standing in front of the Miami federal courthouse, a pump-action shotgun held upright against her hip. "She's a book," I said to Gregg.

But first I auditioned her in a short story. The marshal becomes Karen Sisco. We watch her fall for a charter-fishing-boat skipper who turns out to be a part-time bank robber with a big ego. Karen takes care of business—no emotional harm done, she's cool—and I begin thinking about Karen for a book.

“I write with a pen. I can't imagine looking at a screen as I write.”

While I was looking at ways to introduce her, six convicts broke out of Glades Correctional Institution in Palm Beach County. I got details from Jim Born, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent, now a novelist himself. Jim describes how the six—all Cubans—tunneled out, and it gave me a direction for the book. Put Karen there, in the middle of the escape.

In Out of Sight, she arrives at Glades on business as convicts are coming out of the ground, sirens wailing, spotlights sweeping the area. Karen gets out of her car, opens the trunk to grab a shotgun, and a convict shoves her inside. He gets in with her, and Karen meets Jack Foley. These two will be what the book is about. Jack's buddy gets behind the wheel, and they take off.

For the trunk scene to work, it has to be positive, Foley and Karen natural, even funny without being cute. Karen says, "I'm not much of a hostage if no one knows I'm here." Foley says, "You aren't a hostage, you're my zoo-zoo, my treat after five months of servitude."

They go on like that, pressed together in the dark, chatting, disagreeing, but enjoying it. What they talk about reminds them of movies. Karen delivers Faye Dunaway's key line to Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor: "Have I ever denied you anything?" As in the short story, Karen is falling for a bank robber, but this time it's the real thing. I leave Karen and Foley thinking about each other. I know they're not going to walk off into the sunset together; Foley will go back to prison. But I want them aching to see each other again. I want them to take time out from who they are and spend one night together. Then back to the reality of the plot.

A photo of a woman marshal with a shotgun, and a prison break, gave me what I needed to write a love story.

I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 a.m. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency. My one rule: I had to start writing, get into a scene, before I could put the water on for coffee. Two pages a day in the early hours allowed me to turn out five books, all westerns, and over 30 short stories in the next ten years.

I read Hemingway every day to get into the rhythm of his spare style; then turned to Richard Bissell, who wrote his books much the same way but with a natural feel for humor.

In 1953 I wrote Three-Ten to Yuma and sold it to Dime Western for 90 dollars. Two film versions were made, 50 years and 50 million dollars apart. Both are good westerns, worth watching, but the remake misses the point of my short story: the good guy who gives his word with the odds heavily against him comes up a winner.

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