Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 250 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, "ScreenTEENwriters," is available throughMeriwether Publishing or Amazon.com and isthe only text on the market which teaches the craft of screenwriting toteenagers.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: Where There's a Will, There's a Play (& probably a film and a novel, too)"You seem distracted," I remarked to one of my clients I've been mentoring on a documentary. The source of his scattered attention, it turns out, is that he was named executor of an elderly relative's estate. Though none of the heirs paid the lady much mind while she was still living, they had suddenly become as focused as lemmings-to-the-sea when it came time to put in an appearance for the reading of her will. A multitude of kin he had never even known existed were quick to pull him aside and rattle off their opinions on who exactly was entitled to what. "I could practically write a book about 'em," he remarked.
Last wills and testaments, of course, have always been good fodder for fiction, allowing us a peek into the curious mindset of both the deceased and the bereaved. How many times, in fact, have you run across a newspaper item like one of the following and wondered how the recipients reacted to their sudden gain...or loss:
* A couple that has been living beyond their means for years knows that a nice chunk of change upon Grandma's impending demise will solve their financial woes. Grandma, however, decides to teach this irresponsible pair a lesson in humility and leaves everything instead to Skeezix, her cat.
* A young busboy who strikes up a friendship with an elderly man who dines alone each day at the restaurant is astonished to learn that he has been named sole heir to the gentleman's sizable estate, a windfall which will finally enable him to pursue his education at a prestigious college and better his standing in life.
* A manipulative mother seeks to control her oldest daughter's heartstrings by specifying that she won't inherit a single dime if she marries outside of the family's religious faith. Will true romance outweigh the promise of continuing a comfortable lifestyle? Or will she concede to her mother's expectations from beyond the grave?
* The mentally ill tenant of a halfway house was in possession of $200,000 stashed in old coffee cans in his closet at the time he died. Being without any known relatives, the determination is made that the money should go to the city. The members of the town council, however, soon become as greedy as flesh and blood heirs when it comes to deciding which community programs should get a boost of extra funding.
Real life provides us with countless examples of individuals who regard the issue of inheritance as an obligatory reward or compensation for years of devotion, servitude, or just plain "being related." Likewise, the decedents can be just as guilty in using the disbursement of their worldly possessions as a way to punish their relatives for past deeds or to achieve future outcomes from beyond the grave. How you -- as a recipient -- would respond to the good news, the bad news, and the conditional attachments of the dearly departed's final wishes is the subject of the following creative writing and discussion exercises to jump-start your imagination on this first month of a brand new year.
An eccentric uncle has bequeathed you his castle in Ireland, along with all of its Medieval furnishings, a flock of sheep and -- oh yes, did we mention a full household of Irish staff to run things for you? There are only two conditions to your inheritance. The first is that you have to pack up and go live in Ireland for the rest of your life. The second is that, because of their loyalty, the servants have been promised lifelong employment and housing beneath your late uncle's roof. Sounds good so far? The bad news is that the servants had been expecting their employer to leave them the entire kit and kaboodle and live happily ever after. Resentful of your arrival (and perhaps even harboring a few murderous thoughts), they are determined to chase you off and, accordingly, cause you to forfeit.
Question: How do you balance the fun and novelty of owning your own castle with the stress of trying to manage difficult personnel?
A co-worker whom you don't very well invites you out to lunch one day in order to share her problem with you. It seems that she had always assumed she was an only child. It now turns out that she had a sibling she never knew about and that this mystery person is to share in a large estate left by an elderly aunt. Unfortunately, she can't touch a cent of the trust fund unless she can locate this missing sister/brother within one year. Because the two of you share so many similar physical traits-and because time is now running out-she'd like to enlist your aid in pretending to be the long-lost sib. In exchange for this favor, she will share half of the fortune with you free and clear. You're intrigued but stall for a little time to think it over. In reality, you use the extra time to do some sleuthing on your own.
Question: If your search yields that the missing sibling is already deceased, would that influence your decision on whether to play along with the charade? Conversely, if you discover the sibling is still alive, what would you do next?
For the past three years, you have been the primary caregiver to an elderly relative. Although two of your five siblings actually live closer to her than you do and the other two are financially independent, none of the four have ever given you a day off or offered to help with the expense of meals, medications, and taking her to doctor appointments. When she finally passes away, she divides her property equally among the five of you.
Question: Were you expecting to receive a higher percentage because of your devotion in the last years of her life? How does this make you feel toward your siblings who see this division of property as being entirely fair?
For as long as you can remember, you have had your heart set on winning the Olympic gold in gymnastics. Not a day has gone by that you haven't been practicing and entering competitions. The more accomplished you have become as an athlete, however, the more critical your parents have been that you should be putting more attention into learning the family business in order to run it after they have retired. While you admire and respect that the company has been under the same name for three generations, you're more interested in making a name for yourself and representing your country on the U.S. Olympic team. Your father informs you that he has changed his will and that all he is going to leave you is $1 if you don't step up to your family obligations. You assume, of course, that he is joking. When both of them are suddenly killed in an accident, you find out that he wasn't bluffing. You are to report to work on the 2nd Monday after the funeral, the same day as the Olympic trials that will determine whether you have a place on the team. Question: Is your dream of a gold medal worth that $1?
You and nine other people have worked for the same small publishing firm for a number of years. When the owner finally passes away, without any offspring to whom he can leave the business, he surprises all of you-his "office family"-by equally dividing the company's assets in his will. As all of you sit around the conference table for the last time before going separate ways, the subject comes up regarding what each of the recipients is planning to do with his and her surprise windfall. "Well," says the first one, "my mom passed away from cancer last year and we've still got a lot of bills to deal with. After that, I'll probably donate the rest to the American Cancer Society so they can keep working on a cure." The second person remarks that it always upsets her to know that so many people are going to bed hungry at night while her own family often has food left over; she is planning to donate her share to the local soup kitchen. All eyes are now upon you.
Question: What are you going to do with your portion? If your answer is one that might be considered personally frivolous, would you feel pressured to make up an altruistic response in order to be well thought of by your peers? What would you do if someone from the media arrived and was going to quote each of the replies in the next day's paper?
The four examples presented at the very beginning can result in a number of different endings. Choose the scenario you like best and write a short story reflecting how the inheritance impacted the lead character's life in either a positive or negative way.
Happy New Year's writing!