Please welcome Tony Lee Moral, who will describe the genesis of his new mystery, Playing Mrs. Kingston:
How Alfred Hitchcock can influence Your Novel Writing by Tony Lee Moral
Alfred Hitchcock has been a huge influence on my life, ever since I saw my first Hitchcock film, I Confess, at the age of 10 years old. I was immediately struck by the moral ambiguity of the film and the conflicted viewpoint of the central character, a priest, played by Montgomery Clift. Since then I’ve written three books on Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense. Two books are on the making of specific films, The Birds and Marnie, which were made in the early 1960s and have a close production history; and a more general book called Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass, which is about all of his films, for aspiring screenwriters and film makers.
So when writing my murder mystery novel Playing Mrs. Kingston, I was immediately drawn to the Hitchcockian principles of suspense and characterization. The central character, Catriona Kingston, takes after many a Hitchcock blonde, particularly Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman and Eva Marie Saint. She is feisty, determined, action oriented, duplicitous and mysterious. The duel identifies she plays, both Catriona and Catherine, is reminiscent of Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo. Her boyfriend, Mario Montefiore, a saxophonist at the the Stork Club, was inspired by Henry Fonda’s character in The Wrong Man, who himself was based on the real life Manny Balestrero, wrongfully accused of a series of robberies in 1950s New York, the same time period in which my novel is set.
Hitchcock often spoke about the MacGuffin in his films, a key plot device that drives the story. The MacGuffin is the engine that propels the plot. It is the object around which the plot revolves and motivates the actions of the characters. In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the roll of microfilm in the pre-Columbian statue, which both Cary Grant, the hero, and James Mason, the villain, are after. In Playing Mrs. Kingston, the MacGuffin is the stolen Caravaggio painting, which Catriona’s arch enemy so desperately wants. But the real story is about Catriona and Mario, and finding out who the killer is. But in having a MacGuffin in my novel, the stolen painting, it drove the plot forward, and motivated the characters, especially in the second half of the book, when all seemed lost.
Good writing is subtext, reading between the lines, rather than on the nose dialogue. Much of the dialogue in Hitchcock’s best screenplays, such as Notorious, Rear Window and North by Northwest, have layers of meaning. Good dialogue should be full of conflict between the chracters and have a natural rhythm that’s easily spoken, like a verbal sparring game that resembles the epic tennis match in Strangers on a Train until someone scores a point. The writing between Catriona and Detective Radcliffe is like a cat and mouse game, with Catriona trying to stay a few steps ahead of the Detective who is chasing the real Catriona Benedict, while she is in disguise as Catherine Kingston.
Hitchcock loved counterpoint and contrast and often had two things happening at once. He built tension into a scene by having contrasting situations, with two unrelated things happening simultaneously. In Notorious, a big party is taking place in Ingrid Bergman’s honor, but she is too preoccupied in showing Cary Grant the wine cellar, which holds the MacGuffin, in this case the uranium ore stored inside the wine bottles. Upstairs the champagne is quickly running out, threatening to expose the couple to Nazi villain Claude Raines, who Bergman has married, which ratchets up the tension.
A good example of this in Playing Mrs. Kingston is when both Lowry, Catriona’s old theatre boss, and Detective Radcliffe are at the Kingston gallery, and Catriona is threatened to be unmasked at any moment for who she is really is. I had Notorious very much in my mind when writing the novel, especially the big party scenes, when the moral ambiguity of the conflicted heroine comes into play, and she marries into a family full of secrets and becomes trapped in the enemy’s house. Only by using all her wits is she able to escape.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Movie Making Masterclass is published by Michael Wiese Books
Playing Mrs. Kingston is published by Zharmae Publishing Press
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