Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Guest Post: In a Town Called Paradox by Richard Starks and Miriam Murcutt

Please join me in welcoming Richard Starks to Let Them Read Books! Richard is co-author with Miriam Murcutt of the just-released historical novel, In A Town Called Paradox. I'm so happy to have Richard here today with a guest post on how it’s the right details that help make a story come alive.

“I wasn’t looking for Marilyn Monroe when I bumped into her, even though I knew she was in town filming River of No Return…”

So begins In a Town Called Paradox, which asks the question: If each of us has a life story, then who determines how it unfolds and how it should end?

After her mother’s untimely death, the young Corin Dunbar is banished to live with her aunt Jessie, an obsessively religious spinster who runs a failing cattle ranch near a speck of a town called Paradox in southeast Utah. It’s the mid-1950s, and Corin hates her new life until the Big Five Hollywood studios arrive, lured by the fiery red-rock scenery that provides a perfect backdrop to the blockbuster Westerns they plan to film. Overnight, Paradox is transformed from a rural backwater to a playground for glamorous stars like Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson.

Seduced by the glitz of the movies, Corin finds work with the studios, but after a brush with the casting couch, she channels her growing ambitions into saving the ranch—the jewel of the Dunbar family for three generations. When she falls for a charismatic stranger, her future seems bright, but a tragic accident she believes is her fault wrecks her dreams and forces her to make an agonizing decision that will change the course of her life.

Told mainly by Corin—now a middle-aged woman haunted by this watershed moment—In a Town Called Paradox is a compelling read that redefines the meaning of love. 

In A Town Called Paradox

The devil is in the detail – or so people say, usually in relation to contracts or international treaties. But detail is just as important in a novel – especially when, as authors, we are trying to draw readers into a fictional world they may not be familiar with.

Our latest novel, In A Town Called Paradox, is set in Utah during the 1950s, when the Big Five Hollywood studios descended on that state, lured by the fiery red-rock scenery that formed the perfect backdrop to the blockbuster movies they wanted to shoot. Their arrival turned rural backwaters – like our fictional town of Paradox – into playgrounds for glamorous stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Rock Hudson, and in the process upended the lives of the local residents. We thought this setting would be ideal (if it had worked for Hollywood, it should work for us), but to make it credible we needed to salt our scenes with telling detail that was both intriguing and – more importantly – authentic.

We didn’t want to write vaguely about movie cameras and lights, but instead needed precise details of dollies, tracks, cranes and booms. When we introduced a sheriff on duty, we couldn’t just put him in uniform; we needed to highlight the fit of his shirt, the width of his tie, and the particular brown of his pants (that inexplicably were known as ‘pinks’). And when we created a scene with a stuntman, we couldn’t have him tumbling from a height, but had to show how, in those days, he was expected to land – breaking his fall on a stack of cardboard boxes precariously balanced on a mattress.

And then there was ranching. Our main character, Corin Dunbar, is rejected as a child and sent from New York to live with her aunt Jessie, a religious spinster who runs a failing cattle ranch near Paradox. We needed to create – in detail – what her life was like. At the same time, we needed to make sure the detail we used enhanced our characters as well as their story. It could not be allowed to slow the action; but needed to blend in so our readers would unknowingly absorb it.

To that end, we traveled many times to Utah (we live in neighboring Colorado, so already knew the state well) and tracked down people who remembered the days when Hollywood came to town. (Among them was one retired rancher, well into his eighties, who’d worked on set as a movie extra. He gave us a line that became the catchphrase of our fictional Paradox mayor: “When the studios arrive, they take only pictures and leave only money.”)

We listened carefully to what these people had to say – and how they said it. Because dialog in a novel can’t be just talk, but needs to reveal much about character, background and attitude. This was of special importance to us, because in addition to Corin from New York, we had two other main characters: an Englishman who’d been born and raised in the Amazon jungle, then arrived in Paradox because of his love of the movies that were filmed there; and a Native American who’d been convicted of murder but was now on the run near Paradox. (It makes sense in the book, especially when these characters come together to highlight the theme: If each of us has a life story, who determines how it unfolds and how it should end?) But we couldn’t have this diverse trio all speaking the same.

For a while, we played around with 1950s’ slang, as a way of making the characters sound real and at the same time underlining our time period. Some of the expressions current back then had considerable appeal to us (“smog in the noggin”, meaning confused; or “agitate the gravel”, meaning to drive away quickly; or “ice it”, meaning to forget about something), but wisely we decided they would be going a step too far. We didn’t want our readers to think the title of our book was In A Town Called Parody, not In A Town Called Paradox.

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About the Authors:

Richard Starks has lived a writer’s life, first as a journalist, then editor, then magazine publisher, and now a full-time author. He’s written both fiction and non-fiction books in genres that include crime, horror, travel, true-life adventure (both his and other peoples). His books have been published in five languages and seven countries. He’s also freelanced for business and consumer magazines, written for television, and completed the novelization of one of the early horror movies of director David Cronenberg.

Four of his more recent books, including In A Town Called Paradox, were co-written with Miriam Murcutt.

Miriam is a former journalist, editor and marketing executive who has an M.A. in English Literature. When not busy writing, she’s a student of Spanish and a volunteer interviewer for a Carnegie Library oral history archive.

The two writers often think they should have focused on one genre, one series or one character. But researching their books has taken them to Tibet, Greenland, Spain, London, the Amazon basin, and, most recently, to the hidden canyons of Utah. So no one’s complaining.

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