The Silent City takes us into a world not yet explored by Master Mystery Productions: the future. Writer C. R. Rowenson took Southern California and the Mojave Desert and reimagined it nearly fifty years later in 2063. Although his vision of the future can be treacherous and ominous, it is no less captivating. He populated his world with fascinating characters, high stakes, danger, and jaw-dropping discoveries. So what were his inspirations behind this “whatdidit?” Where did he dream up his ideas? Skeleton Key Winner (Pauper’s Grave, September 2016) and Ridge Writers member Julie Bradford interviewed C. R. Rowenson about the impetus for his show.
WHATDIDIT, NOT WHODUNNIT: The Making of The Silent City (Part 1)
An Interview with C.R. Rowenson, Creator of The Silent City
By Julie Bradford
The Eagles’ classic hit, “Hotel California,” oozes atmosphere. An ominous desert, wind in your hair, miles from civilization…or help. This could be heaven, or this could be hell. This is the Mojave Desert. It’s the perfect location for smothering characters in dread as creepy events unfold in the dusty shadows. Local authors and filmmakers take advantage of this atmosphere during Weird Weekend, a 2-day event in Ridgecrest, California, showcasing the eerie side of the Mojave.
In the master’s chambers sits C.R. Rowenson, a familiar face during Weird Weekend. Co-writer and producer of Hello Out There and Pauper’s Grave, Rowenson’s latest contribution is the interactive science fiction thriller, The Silent City — a post-apocalyptic tale set in the quarantined city of Ridgecrest.
In this candid interview, C.R. Rowenson reveals what inspired him to create this tense, futuristic tale, and explains his writing process.
Julie: You’re a main fixture at Weird Weekend, drawing sold-out crowds to your thrilling interactive shows. What attracts you to these projects?
CR: There are a couple of things about these interactive mysteries that I really love.
First, it’s a new way to explore telling stories. Before working with Master Mystery Productions, I never would have considered setting something up like this and, honestly, I don’t know where else I could get this kind of experience.
Second, I love the quick turnaround. That may sound odd for an event we start planning months in advance, but it is far faster than outlining, writing, and editing a new novel. Plus, I get to see everyone’s reactions as they worm their way through the clues and misdirection to discover what truly happened. Which actually lead me to the final reason I love these events so much.
They are freaking COOL! They are just unbelievable amounts of fun to plan, write, and execute. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say I really enjoy the process.
Julie: The Silent City has a different format than your previous productions. How did you come about the idea of audio performances, and how are they utilized in this show?
CR: The format of these events is always flexible from the start. It’s more about deciding the kind of story we want to tell, the experience we want the players to have, and the resources we are willing to use. From there it’s just a matter of piecing together the best format to make it happen.
Let’s take a closer look at the audio recordings.
The premise came first: a small select team of individuals hiking through the desert into an abandoned city. From the beginning, I knew we wanted the players of The Silent City to have some kind of connection with the field team. The best way to do that was to add a “direct connection” with the explorers of the city.
Then the setting came into play. Taking place nearly half a century in the future, I knew there would be technological advancement. If the last decade is any indication, sending live video streams might be the most common form of communication. In order to maintain the perceived connection with the characters without setting up a full-cast play, we met in the middle with the idea of audio content.
Julie: What are the challenges and simplicities of working with voice actors for this project?
CR: I’d say the biggest challenge is a matter of clarity. I know exactly how I want everything to sound in my head, but that doesn’t mean I’ve formatted and described everything so the actors pick up on it right away. I do my best, but that’s just the nature of writing. Fortunately, I got to sit in a couple of rehearsals to help clear up a few points. That and Master Mystery Productions has some great directors to handle this.
I have to say, working with the actors was an amazing experience. I worked hard to make the scripts scary, ominous, and creepy while still building distinct characters, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. From the first read-through of the script, I could see what I got right and what had to be fixed. Some of the dialogue gave ME chills and I can’t wait to see how the audience responds.
Julie: Time and place are critical elements in storytelling by anchoring the characters. Like all Weird Weekend stories, the backdrop is the Mojave Desert. What inspired the futuristic setting of 2063?
CR: This was another factor I knew from the beginning. While the previous two Weird Weekend events have been more traditional “Who-Done-It” type stories, this is what we are calling a “What-Did-It.” Rather than focusing on who killed who, The Silent City is all about answering the question: “What happened to this town?”
Since I wanted the town in question to be Ridgecrest, it had to be set in the future. Oddly enough, that factor became important for the timeline of the story. Certain things could not have happened in much less time than was set.
Julie: The Silent City has a gritty, post-apocalyptic feel to it — a true genre piece with moody ambiance. How important is atmosphere and tone in your writing?
When Master Mystery Productions approached me early in 2017 and asked if I wanted to be the sole writer on this year’s event, I was hesitant. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I wasn’t sure if Master Mystery Productions and Ridge Writers would be comfortable adopting my style.
The first thing I said was, “I’d love to do this, but if you let me off the chain it’s going to contain a lot more horror elements than in the past. Are you SURE you’re alright with that?”
Instead of turning them off the idea, everyone just seemed to get more excited.
Julie: You wrote the script, with Daniel Stallings directing. What’s it like collaborating with Daniel, and how involved are you with the production of this show beyond writing?
CR: Working with Daniel and Mater Mystery Productions has been a blast every single time. They are easy to work with, open to new ideas and fresh approaches, and very supportive and encouraging of myself and all their actors.
For the most part, Master Mystery Production is in charge of, well, the production. They are handling all the props, the team challenges, the hiring of actors, the rehearsals, the creation of the recordings, and number of other things I’m just not aware of. Now, I have attended a few rehearsals, but where we really work together is on crafting the experience for the audience. It’s kind of a combination between crafting the story arc and production.
At this point, I’m mostly done with my contributions and get to sit back and watch the rest of it come together. It’s quite nice, actually.
Julie: In your story, The Group is a team of individuals who come together to solve a mystery and deliver the truth to the world. It’s a diverse cast of characters, with their own back stories and motivations. What is your process for fleshing out characters from scratch?
CR: Characters can come from a vast number of places, but these came from a certain exercise I like to do.
I started by listing all of the traits I thought would be necessary for the field team in The Silent City. We’re talking things like, medical experience, a desert wilderness guide, and so on. Once I had the list of traits, I created the five most overblown, stereotypical characters I could think of: The snarky hacker, the silent and moody wilderness guide, and so on.
Then I took these characters and their back stories, and scrambled up the important traits.
This isn’t a perfect solution, but it is a technique I have used in the past to make sure the characters aren’t just straw-men or caricatures. I won’t really know how well I’ve done until I see people’s reactions.
Julie: The character of Jiao-Long Mao is a journalist trying to expose government corruption. Kyra Gainley believes corporations are ruining civilization. Are these edgy characters inspired by people or events in the real world?
CR: To be clear, all of these characters are fictitious and any apparent or perceived relation to existing people is purely coincidental. The opinions of the characters are not necessarily representative of the opinions of the author, Master Mystery Productions, or Ridge Writers.
Whew. Felt the bullets starting to fly with that one.
Julie: I hear ya.
Your other characters include Ash Coreman, a veterinarian specializing in strange biology. Zahra Bitar, is a nature lover and thrill-seeker. Amara Balewa is former military personnel. How much research was involved in creating these characters, and do you see yourself in them?
CR: How much research? Not nearly as much as I would like.
A lot of this stuff comes from my experiences and from the people I know. One friend just recently graduated from Vet School, several are either on deployment or have been on deployment, and I myself am an avid nature lover.
Just by writing what I know, I think I am able to get most of it right, but I know there are things I’m missing and getting wrong. Sometimes, that’s just unavoidable. Otherwise you can spend your whole life researching and never finish the story.
All I can say is that I’ve done my best.
Julie: You put your characters through the wringer with bits of paranoia, horror, and shock. Who is the audience for this eerie chiller?
CR: I would not recommend this for children, at least not without parental permission. Beyond that, I’d say anyone that likes a good mystery and doesn’t mind having their skin crawl. There’s also something for those that like a post-apocalyptic or desert settings. All I can know is this is exactly the type of thing I would love going to.
What do you think, Julie? You’ve seen the some of the scripts. Did it raise the hairs on the back of your neck just a little?
Julie: It did! I’m a sucker for ominous settings.
You work full-time as an Engineer. When do you squeeze in time to write, and what can we anticipate from you in the future?
CR: My most reliable time to write is in the morning before going in to work. I get up in the god-less hours of the morning, around 4 AM, so I can shower, eat, and – if I’m lucky – get 90 minutes of writing time before going to work at 7. It’s rough, but it’s what I’ve got to work with, and there’s no way I’m giving up writing.
As for future works, I’ve got a lot of things going on. Let’s start with the biggest projects.
There are lots of resources available on the craft of writing, just ask me if you want some, and a number of really good ones on marketing and business. But there is a surprising shortage of resources that focus on showing how to build a healthy and happy life as a writer. It was nearly a year ago when I first sat down with my friends April Hayman and Chautona Havig to start recording a podcast focused on exactly that, and it has been an absolute blast.
We’ve still got a couple months left before the close of our first chapter of the podcast, but we’ve already got some fantastic things lined up for 2018. For one, we’ve decided to take a classic bit of writing advice to heart and start showing instead of telling. We will continue our traditional rambling discussions, but in 2018 our listeners can expect more episodes focusing on what we are doing in our lives to tackle personal struggles such as time management and mental health. It’s going to be great and I hope you join us.
I’ve also got something for the fantasy writers out there.
Just this week I spoke at Ridge Writers on “The 4 Stages of Building Marvelous Magic.” This is a system I’ve developed to guide writers through the process of building marvelous and awesome magic for their stories. I’ve always been obsessed with magic, and I have begun distilling everything I know to teach people how to better craft the thing that we all love so much.
If your readers didn’t make it to the Ridge Writers event, there’s no reason to panic. This is the main focus of my blog at crrowenson.com. They can join me there as we go through this journey together, finding out what works and what doesn’t and building awesome magic along the way.
Oh, one more thing. I am writing a companion story for The Silent City. While I can’t go into details without spoilers, I honestly think it’s some of my best work. I have a special offer only for those attending performances of The Silent City. If you email me a photo of your ticket or brochure from the event, I will send you a copy of the story absolutely free.
I could go on, Julie, but this is supposed to be an interview, not an auto-biography. Thanks for talking with me.
Julie: And thank you for sharing your writing process with us.
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave The Silent City. Catch C.R. Rowenson’s gritty interactive thriller during Weird Weekend, Saturday, September 23, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. at the Presbyterian Church in Ridgecrest, California. Tickets are $20 each, on sale now at Red Rock Books. To learn more about C.R. Rowenson and the craft of writing, visit his website at crrowenson.com.
Julie Bradford is winner of the 2016 Weird Weekend Storytelling Competition, recipient of the Skeleton Key Award for her contributions to Pauper’s Grave, a member of the California Writers Club, and a freelance writer based in the beautiful but ominous Mojave Desert!
Than you Julie Bradford for a fantastic interview and thank you C. R. Rowenson for an equally fantastic story! But when you enter The Silent City, how will you unearth its many secrets? Learn how we make this pulse-racing thriller interactive and how time is the all-important element in our second behind-the-scenes installment, Time Travel: The Making of The Silent City (Part 2).
And don’t forget your tickets!
–Master Mystery Productions