Friday, May 03, 2013

Fodder for Fiction: An Interview with Morgan St. James

Today I'm pleased to host author Morgan St. James, author of Who's Got the Money?It's a book that sounds like fun. So take it away, Morgan!

Drawing from Life Experiences for Fiction

Morgan St. James
I’ve been following Bob Sanchez’s blog for quite a while so it is my pleasure to add “my two cents” today. Life experiences are a wonderful resource for authors, whether used in fiction, non-fiction or creative non-fiction.

Most of us have stories about how we met our spouse or significant other, things that happened at the office, or an experience where a misunderstanding turned into something hilarious or violent. Others have amazing or astounding life experiences, but whatever the situation those incidents can easily find their way into fiction. Think about thiswhen recounting these tales we often embellish the facts for the shock or humor value. Sometimes it is exaggeration, and other times we add little things that really didn’t happen or eliminate embarrassing details. What we actually create in these stories is known as creative non-fiction, or facts mixed with fictional details.

This leads us to how authors can best use experiences to jump-start fictional plots or scenes in a book. I’m going to do a bit of blatant self promotion at this point, to illustrate what I mean by using my latest novel from the Dark Oak Mysteries imprint of Oak Tree Press.

“Who’s Got the Money?” is pure fiction, but was inspired by true experiences. Most people associate prison manufacturing with license plates, but real prison factories produce close to a billion dollars worth of products every year! My co-author, Meredith Holland, and I both worked for the real private sector company that was under contract to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to market furniture manufactured in Federal prisons. By a mandate from Roosevelt’s time that created the program, we could only sell to the Federal government. This wasn’t a desk here and a chair there. We were part of a team that covered the whole United States, each of us writing millions of dollars of business a year. I personally covered Southern California, Southern Nevada and Utah. Meredith worked in the Pacific Northwest including Alaska.

The subcontractor we worked for did bilk the government out of millions before going bankrupt and got away with it. Once we left the company, we thought “New government embezzlement plots are in the news every day, so why not write a funny crime caper, using what we know?”
We wanted something like Nine to Five meets The First Wives Club, and that’s what we wrote. A story centered on three down-on-their-luck female executives who go to work for the fictional Federal Association of Correctional Reform. When they turn into undercover bumbling Charlie’s Angels types, that’s when our experiences and knowledge kick in and the fun begins.

Many of the situations we used were not what actually happened, but rather gave us inspiration and allowed us to create a very clever plot. NYT Best Selling author, former undercover FBI Agent Joaquin “Jack” Garcia called Who’s Got the Money? “a witty, well thought-out embezzlement scheme.” He added it was a good thing we weren’t crooks. How’s that for reality?

 Experiences and professional or industrial knowledge may just be resting at the back of your mind. Think about giving your characters professions and put that knowledge to work in a thrilling, funny or over-the top way, depending upon your genre.

For example, we could not have conceived of the unique scheme in our book without our using what we knew, nor would we have had any idea what big business prison manufacturing is! Once we had a direction, what we learned over a four-year period entered into devising a scam that could have worked in real life. We drew upon every bit of knowledge, from working in the system, being inside of massive military warehouses and supply depots, and having toured actual prison factories and spoken with the inmates and supervisors.

Incidentally, before being inside these factories, I’d envisioned something like a “garage-type” manufacturing space surrounded by cell blocks. Hardly the case. These factories are like any regular factory except that they are inside the prison gates and instead returning to comfy homes in the suburbs when the day is done, the workers go to cells at night that are located in a different part of the prison grounds.

We plucked the details we wanted, exaggerated many and created a fictional prison system with an on-staff marketing team. Then we cooked up our extremely clever and diabolical plot to embezzle millions.

Whether thrilling or funny, it’s your story and is populated by versions of things you’ve experienced and characters of your creation. Composite characters that blend two or three people you know are fun to work with. Grab the appearance of one real person, the quirks of another and maybe special skills or knowledge from another.

La Bella Mafia, due out in late summer from Houdini Books, is Morgan St. James’ next novel co-authored with Dennis N. Griffin, as told to us by Bella Capo. The amazing true story of an incredible woman who could have died many times but survived to tell the story. Daughter of a crime boss, promoter of clubs on Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip and a female white boss in the Crips, she now dedicates her life to helping abused women through the La Bella Mafia organization.


Bob Sanchez said...

I'm so glad you wrote this post, Morgan. Thank you. The "Write what you know" admonition shouldn't stop us writers, given that the Internet makes research possible on such a huge range of topics. It's not just what you know, but what you can find out--or in some cases, plausibly invent.

Stephen Tremp said...

I agree! The Internet and the Science Channels and YouTube clips from leading theoretical scientists have made research so much easier. An average guy like me can write stories I would not be able to do ten years ago.

Good luck Morgan and best wishes to you!

Morgan St. James said...

Wow, that's so right. I use the net all of the time to either research or verify. Sometimes it's as simple as checking out a street name or location and other times it is really in depth. Imagine how hard this would be without the det. Do you remember the days of tramping to the library to hand-write notes and later lugging a laptop to type out what you found?

Morgan St. James said...

Hit the post too quickly. Talk about proofreading---det should be net! LOL

Morgan Mandel said...

You do have some unique experiences from your job. I can see how that would work well in your book, Morgan!

Morgan Mandel

Jacqueline Seewald said...

This is a very interesting blog! I always have believed that everyone has a unique story just using their personal experiences as a basis. I do myself.

Morgan St. James said...

Jacqueline and Morgan--I'm really lucky that I've had a life filled with rich experiences, and a few that were pretty bizarre. I've used so many of them in a fictional way in various books. However, almost everyone has things they can use, even if it is a run-in with a boss or unruly children.

The experience representing the furniture made in Federal prisons was unique. Even after years in the interior design business, neither my co-author or I had any idea such a thing existed until we were in it waist deep.

Heidiwriter said...

This is a fun and interesting book to read! I enjoyed it.

Morgan St. James said...

Thanks, Heidi. We really had fun writing it. You might enjoy the Silver Sisters Mysteries. There are three in the series so far, and I write those books with my real sister, Phyllice Bradner. Also lots of fun. They can be found on Amazon. The first one was A Corpse in the Soup -

Susan Whitfield said...

Nice to hear that you write from experiences most of us haven't ...well, experienced. In my own books, there's plenty of me or someone I know or some tale I heard somewhere and had to use. Isn't writing wonderful? You book sounds intriguing. I'll have to pick up a copy. Continued success!

Susan Whitfield said...

Morgan, it's nice to hear that you write from experiences most of us haven't ... well, experienced. In my own books, there's plenty of me or someone I know or some tale I heard somewhere and had to use. Isn't writing wonderful? Your book sounds intriguing. I'll have to pick up a copy. Continued success!

Morgan St. James said...

Yes, Susan, this is an experience most people haven't had. LOL Well after the time I represented marketing of furniture made in Federal prisons, I interviewed several former Mafia members for my column on and when I said to Andrew Di Donato (Surviving the Mob) that because he'd been in Federal prison so many years he must know about the real prison manufacturing entity he said, "Know about it? I was part of it. Can you picture me making linens?"

Andrew was gracious enough to give me a blurb for Who's Got the Money? which can be found in the front of the book. His book is also a fascinating read.