Creating Comedy 101. Find how Marc Reilly created the main characters, plots and theme for his comedy/caper books featured in the Tinman Series. Discover how one writer thinks and creates.
The Genesis of Tinman
I’ve written many things in my life, but none of them include all my favorite subjects, except, The Tinman Series. Indeed, it was created from a simple dictum that came to me a few years ago, and became my guiding principle. The single sentence is taped prominently above my computer: Write what you want to read.
I am an avid reader, and some books I’ve read touch upon one or more of my favorite subjects, but none delve into all of them enough to sate me. So I set out to write the kind of books that would appeal to me in every way. These subjects are, in no particular order: comedy, crime, pool, history and family.
Finding Mr. Right
Pool has always been my mistress. I first picked up a cue as a pre-teen, and have continued to hone my game over five decades. I am quite adept, but could never be considered a shark or hustler. Mainly because I don’t have the kind of mental makeup to hide my speed, and fool unsuspecting players. When I’m good at something, I want to show it. That said, I’ve always been fascinated by the type person who could successfully take money from people without overtly showing their skills. I first saw The Hustler, when I was thirteen. It remains high on my list as favorite movies, and I had always wanted to create a character as interesting as Fast Eddie.
Ten years or so ago, I wrote a screenplay, entitled, Calling the Shots. It featured an old hustler, Tinman, who ran a broken down pool hall. I rewrote the piece many times trying to get it sold, but was never successful. Still, I followed the suggestion of the great writer, William Goldman: Never throw anything away. The script, therefore, remained on my shelf as I plied my trade in other avenues.
Years later, when I found myself searching for a new project, that old hustler popped into my mind. Maybe I could bring him back, but as a younger man, still in his prime. I felt, however, a series of books solely about pool would severely limit my audience. So I thought, maybe this is some kind of hustler who solves mysteries. People love mysteries, right? Better yet—more marketable by far—maybe he could even solve crimes! Understandably, this idea got stuck in my throat halfway out, and I quickly spit it into the trash heap. Hey, I love Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Hercules Poirot, Harry Bosch, Edward Delaney and all the others. But I was tired of the good guys always winning the day.
That’s when Donald Westlake and his Dortmunder Series came to mind. I’d always been crazy for Westlake’s work, and his sad sack crook, Dortmunder. Perhaps I could go down that path. I reread every book in the series, and when finished, realized the idea did have merit. But I wanted to bring more to the comedy/caper genre. As much as I adore Westlake’s motley crew, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional. My strengths have always been character development and dialogue, and I needed my books to function more as a series that followed an arc, where the characters grew and became real to the reader. That said, I knew I had found my main guy. Tinman was born.
Enter the Posse. Families, particularly nontraditional ones, have always held great interest. I was raised in a normal setting, with two parents and two siblings. But we all held separate interests and so were not terribly close-knit. As a young actor, I found I was more attached to the temporal families that formed around the staging of the shows I was in. The participants were all tied together by a common goal. Upon reflection, I discovered a way I could create this same experience within a group of crooks, all with different skills, yet with one common focus—the caper. And as with all families, normal conflict would arise during the pursuit of their goal. In this way, the characters would be relatable, not just cartoon cutouts. The reader could look past their illicit occupations, see the real people behind the façade, and hopefully form an affinity with them.
Becoming a Thief
Now, with Tinman as the leader, the Posse as his family, and crime as the basis for the plot structure, I was starting to see the light. However, I knew I could not proceed without being thoroughly educated in criminal skills, behavior and mentality. I was okay with the comedy/caper genre, yet I wanted to make sure the details were not glossed over, but rang true, even to the scrutiny of real thieves if need be.
Admittedly, I had a head start in this endeavor. As noted by close associates, I’ve always had a bit of a criminal bent. At twelve, The Sting, was the hit of the day, and I watched and dissected it so many times I knew I could pull off a con if the situation arose. When I was thirteen, I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver, and by the end of the run, I was infuriating Fagin and others by picking their pockets in the green room, or in the wings just before they entered the stage. When I reached my teens, I learned to break in (and out) of my home when my parents were sleeping. Movies of the day, such as The Brinks Job, Dog Day Afternoon, Thieves Like Us, Fun with Dick and Jane had me dreaming of ways such and such a place could be heisted. The 1970’s were also awash with high-profile heists that made national headlines, and further inspired the criminally-minded. Of course, being raised with morals—and a healthy dread of incarceration—I never crossed the line. But I recognized the possibilities, and could imagine the rush one might feel while pulling a caper.
Despite this advantage (if one can call it that) in preparation of writing the Tinman Series, I spent an entire year, six days a week, researching crime and criminals. I read scholarly tomes that analyzed the criminal mind and behavior patterns, and watched countless hours of video revealing the intricacies of lock picking, safe cracking, and other illicit skills. I studied criminal argot, and researched famous heists stretching over a century. By the end of my studies, I felt confident in my ability to have the Posse pull a job, and make it real—at least on the page.
Digging up Plots
But what kind of job? What would make a good caper? That was the next hurdle. I had early on decided Reno would be the home for my gang, as it is a quirky town rich in mystery, paradox, and color. The perfect supporting character. And it avoided the trendy tendency to place mysteries and crime stories in either L.A. or New York City. Boring.
As it turned out, my choice of locales was also quite fortuitous in my search for capers. Initially, I spent a few months at the Historical Society, poring through microfilm of local newspapers. I began in the 1950’s and worked my way forward. I was amazed at the number of juicy heists that occurred in the area, and intrigued at how many famous thieves and gangsters frequented Reno back in its heyday. It seemed my Posse was in good company.
It was in the midst of this search when I discovered two notorious crimes that had gone unsolved. For a writer, there is no more fertile ground. The first was the heist of a home owned by one of Reno’s most eccentric millionaires, LaVere Redfield. It took place in the late 50’s and the thieves were never caught. At the time it was considered to be the largest burglary in the country’s history. This became the basis for Shady Deal.
The second occurred in the 70’s and involved the mysterious theft—and subsequent return—of some extremely valuable baskets made by the country’s premier weaver, Dat So La Lee. Further research into the FBI files, uncovered a case that has perplexed and addled the law for decades. A near perfect find. And an ideal setup for Book One, Posse of Thieves.
With these gems in hand, I was free to weave fact into fiction, giving the books depth and intrigue they would otherwise not possess. It also sated my need to include history into the series. I further accomplished this by including narrative passages in each of the books, which describe historical happenings that help flush out the atmosphere and personality of Reno. I quickly found it is the perfect city and home for the series. Wacky, wild and wonderful, just like my crew.
The final decision before starting was: comedy or drama. It was a no-brainer in one sense. Tinman is an anti-hero. He’s a thief I need my readers to root for. Comedy was therefore the natural choice. On the other hand, it’s a publishing rule of thumb that comedy books don’t sell. Just like romantic comedy screenplays are dead in the water in Hollywood. And I suppose if over the years I had followed all the rules, and only written what I was supposed to, I would be a richer person, and a lesser writer. So there it is. The secret’s out. Creating comedy is my bag. I’m in it for the laughs. And I hope you get some by reading these books. Because my main goal with the Tinman Series is to make the world a funnier place. Long live laughter.
Find out more about the Tinman Series here.