This post is part of the Candlesticks and Daggers Interview Series run by contributor Sati Benes Chock. For more about the book, please follow the link here.
Excerpt from Jim Norman’s story “The Old Photographer”
The photographer covered his head, shoulders, and the back of the camera with the dark cloth. The white side of the cloth faced out, to reflect light away. The black side of the cloth kept out all light except what came through the lens and created an image. The woman’s face was sharply focused on the ground glass.
“Relax and be yourself,” the photographer said, looking at her deeply and honestly sad face.
He came out from under the dark cloth. “I’m going to make a few adjustments.”
He turned a large knob on the side of the brass lens and got back under the dark cloth. His cloudy, blue eyes looked again at the image on the ground glass. Two heads were now in the frame. A young, handsome man had joined the woman in the camera.
Sati: Can you tell us a little about how you became a writer? Did you always know that you wanted to be one?
Jim: I could always write well. All through school, I got better grades than I should have because what I said sounded better because of the writing. I always liked writing and it came easily, but making it a career wasn’t an option. Family pressure said I could be anything I wanted to be as long as it was a doctor or lawyer.
I see that you were previously a lawyer, which is a great background for someone who writes mysteries. What sort of law did you practice? Have you been able to incorporate any of your experience into your stories?
Law hasn’t, to this point, been part of my mysteries. I was a commercial real estate lawyer representing companies that developed, owned or managed hotels and resorts. What law gave me was an introduction to some genuine characters and the interest in doing research that would add dimension to my writing.
What do you read for fun?
Mostly mysteries, some non-fiction. I don’t read things similar to what I’m writing. I’d never read a Dick Francis novel or James Lee Burke novel when I’m writing dialogue in one of my stories. The characters would wind up with an English or Cajun accent.
You teach writing at the University of North Carolina. Do you have any favorite short stories that you like to teach? If so, what is it that you like about these stories? And what, in your opinion, is the best way to master the craft of short fiction?
I don’t teach from specific short stories. I start with “where do story ideas come from” and then discuss the differences among short stories, novels and screenplays. I stress the three-act format that started with Aristotle and applies to all fiction types. Students are encouraged to read short stories in the genre they intend to write and are taught how to deconstruct a story to see what the writer did. To illustrate the special challenge of the short story, I quote Abraham Lincoln, who once wrote, “I’m sorry for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” The best way to learn and improve one’s writing is to keep reading and keep writing.
You are also an award-winning writer of screenplays. How much overlap do you see between writing for film and writing short stories? In longer fiction, for example, there are screenwriting devices that work nicely, such as “set pieces” or “beats,” or dividing a novel into 3 acts, but do these devices ever translate well to short fiction?
All those devices work in all types of fiction. A story is a story. Each type of fiction has structural and format limitations. The toughest one for short stories is word length. It is much harder to have plot, character development, setting, dialogue and description where you are limited by word count. In writing fiction, it is very important to learn and deal with the limitations and requirements.
I understand that “The Old Photographer” is a tribute to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone series. Have you written any other tales in tribute to the Twilight Zone, or have you written other stories that are a tribute to film in any way? In other words, was this a “one off,” or is this a common theme for you, since you are a screenwriter?
“The Old Photographer” is the first Twilight Zone genre story I’ve done. I’m a big fan of Serling and the series. It took a long time before a viable story came to mind. I’ve started making my notes for a second, and have an idea for a third. A secret benefit to writing short stories is that they are a great outline for a screenplay. I plan to write both for most stories I come up with.
If you could tell beginning writers one thing about the publishing process, what would it be?
Expect rejection, keep writing and enjoy the validation of acceptance of any kind.
Some writers have rituals that they feel helps them with the creative process. Do you employ any rituals, or do anything regularly that helps keep you on track with your writing?
All my writing begins with a one-sentence idea of the story. In the screenplay world, it’s called a logline. When I’m happy with that, I do an outline of bullet points that define the three acts. After that, a detailed outline follows. The last step is the actual writing. Doing the early work allows problems to be fixed and avoids writer’s block.
Any future projects that you’d like to tell us about?
I’m currently working on a sequel to my short stories featuring autistic Las Vegas detective Chandler Dunn, a screenplay TV sitcom pilot set in 1925 Brooklyn and a first for me, a romantic comedy feature length screenplay. I don’t confine myself to one genre or one type of writing. If a story starts rattling around in my head, the only cure is to write it.
Jim Norman is a recovering lawyer who has turned to writing short stories, novels and screenplays for therapy. His mystery and humor short stories have been published in numerous magazines and his young adult and television pilot screenplays have captured awards in many prestigious film festivals. Mystery elements are found in all his writing, which should be expected from a member of Mystery Writers of America. During the summer, Jim teaches short story, novel and screenplay writing at the University of North Carolina Asheville College for Seniors. Winters find him in Florida with his wife and dog.