by Sulari Gentill
Details at the end of the post on how to enter to win a copy of the book, and a link to order it from Amazon.
Stan Lee, the creative force behind Marvel, has appeared in almost every film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by way of a cameo, in roles so minor that he often had no lines. Fans watched for him, and I expect directors and writers had to place him carefully to ensure that the scene he inevitably stole, was not undone by that theft. Of course, Stan was not the first to walk into his creations. Alfred Hitchcock made cameos in forty of his fifty-four films. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for writers to be granted this small flourish in screen adaptations of their work. After all, most films have call for many extras, serving in bars or restaurants, walking the streets, or sitting on park benches. The parts are small and insignificant enough that they may be granted to amateurs with no theatrical talent. The delight for the viewer is to recognize them, to spot them in those few seconds on screen.
The cameo in film has also been used for reasons aside from rewarding the writer. Celebrities have often played themselves in minor roles—Ed Sheeran in Game of Thrones, Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Donald Trump in Home Alone II. They bring their own fan bases, a connection to the true story on which the film is based, or a sense of time or place to the production. Filmmakers must balance the contemporary connection a celebrity cameo brings—the excitement of that moment of recognition—against the danger of pulling the viewer out of the story.
Cameos operate similarly in literature. Sometimes authors choose to honor a real person by giving their name to a character…though to be honest, honoring may not always be the motive. Crime writers have been known to slay those who irritate them on the page…quite brutally and without remorse. Lawsuits are avoided by a tidy little declaration in the title page of the novel that “Names, characters, organisations, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, firms, events, or locales is coincidental.”
At other times the literary cameo is made by a historic figure whose connection is not to the writer but, fictionally, to the story. The Rowland Sinclair Mysteries are peppered with real people who lived in the 1930s. Where There’s a Will features Orson Welles, Randolph Hurst, Joseph Kennedy, and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few. I use these giants of the time to place the smaller personal story of Rowland Sinclair and the murder he’s trying to solve into a larger historical context. Eras are recognisable by not only the year numbers we ascribe them, but by the people who were influential in them. When such a person walks into a scene, they bring a social and political milieu with them, which helps to immerse the reader in time and place.
However, books and films are different genres, and a novelist, cannot simply place Errol Flynn on a park bench feeding the pigeons. Well…perhaps they could, but it would read absurdly. Visual recognition is not a tool available to the wordsmith, and so the cameo has to involve a part big enough to warrant a name being mentioned. Consequently, literary cameos must be woven into the story itself. They must have a purpose or a role beyond the sustenance of pigeons, a part that reads naturally. Indeed, the general rule of writing applies to the “celebrity” as much as it does to anything else—to gain a place in the narrative they must either move the plot forward or show the reader something about the character or situation of the story’s protagonist. If the story can be told without mentioning them, then they do not belong in it.
Even so, there are many small but vital roles in a historical novel that could be taken by people whose real lives might easily have run into the fictional sphere of a well-to-do gentleman artist investigating a brutal murder in Boston in 1935. Each helps to recreate, on the page, the world in which both they and Rowland Sinclair lived. They become a kind of historical scaffolding into which the novel is woven. For me, it is also a delightful way to meet those who walked large in a bygone era—in their context and their element, as human beings complete with flaws and complications, rather than mere icons. A passing glimpse of greatness or notoriety, in a story that is not theirs.
To enter to win a copy of Where There’s a Will, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “will,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen January 29, 2022. U.S. residents only, and you must be 18 or older to enter. If you are entering via email please include you mailing address in case you win, it will be deleted after the contest. You can read our privacy statement here if you like. BE AWARE THAT IT WILL TAKE MUCH LONGER THAN USUAL FOR WINNERS TO GET THEIR BOOKS DUE TO THE CURRENT CRISIS.
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