And Then I Wrote a TV Pilot

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Last week, I finished writing a TV pilot. The story is a paranormal mystery. The protagonist is a snarky young woman with intense curiosity. The landscape is misty; the tone is macabre. And if this script became a TV series, I would devour every episode, twice.

The pilot is adapted from my podcast, The Adventures of Elizabeth Crowne, a pulp fiction series that started as a hobby and has ballooned into a franchise of recordings and books. Not long ago, my friend Bill Holman—actor, cinematographer, Renaissance man—urged me to turn the podcast into a TV series. The writing reminded him of BBC’s Sherlock. (He was the third person to say so). With its gritty historical setting and fantastical twists, the stories begged to be broadcast.

The prospect of a pilot already excited me. Then, at the behest of my publisher, I put together a “book trailer” for the latest Elizabeth Crowne novel, which added fuel to the flames:

More than ever, I could see the stories. I could imagine recognizable actors in the roles I had devised. The prose-y descriptions of the podcast felt so easy to translate into “action,” and, in turn, into visuals on a living room screen.

I hesitated for two reasons: First, I know the odds are long. Every bar-back and bell-hop in SoCal has a hard drive full of original pilots, and few of them are ever even read, much less optioned. The last thing a Hollywood producer wants to see is a script from an East Coast playwright, especially a playwright who hasn’t written a play in years.

Then there’s my odd relationship with television: I grew up in a very rural town, and I didn’t really understand what cable was until I was a teenager. I didn’t own a TV set for much of my adult life. When I started writing about television for, I did most of my research at friends’ houses (which gave us an excuse to hang out), or I rented entire seasons of Lost and Big Love from Blockbuster. When Netflix started streaming, I discovered the joys of binging—but even now, I’m choosy. The sight of a TV switched on during daylight hours makes me physically ill.

Yet I’ve also come to embrace the “New Golden Age of Television,” as the critics boldly describe it. A two-hour movie now feels quaint by comparison, when the narrative canvas can stretch for years and years. The untamed possibilities of Netflix Originals and Amazon Studios now seem infinite. For screenwriters, this era is a gold rush: Producers are hurling money at new dramas and comedies, desperate to keep up with viewers’ bottomless appetites. The odds are still long, but they don’t feel as long as they used to.

My pilot is an experiment—a clunky, oily hotrod, assembled from spare parts, waiting in the garage to be taken for a spin—but dear lord, was it fun to write. From everything I hear, Hollywood is a cold and caustic place, and industry people get cynical fast. Yet more than one screenwriting coach has said it: Write what you love. Believe in what you’re doing. Such sentimental advice has always startled me, coming from such world-weary writers. I’ve composed countless scripts over the years, mostly for stage, sometimes for screen. But nothing has seemed quite so worth believing in.


A Complicated Sky

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“Are you going to miss anything about Arizona?” a friend asked recently.

We were sitting on a patio, at a bar, on one of my last nights in Phoenix. I had lived in Arizona for two momentous years. I would miss a lot of things—people, mostly, but also hiking trails, sitting outside, well-paved asphalt, and all the cacti. I would miss the easygoing attitude and indifferent dress code. I would miss dust storms and real Mexican food. I would miss the life-changing opportunities the city had leant me.

“Anything you won’t miss?” asked my friend, helpfully adding: “The heat?”

“I don’t mind the heat,” I said, although the summer heat wave hadn’t yet descended on the Valley of the Sun, so I was still full of pro-summer bravado. “One thing I won’t miss—the sky.”

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Books by People I Know: “How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward”


In 2014, I was performing in a Costa Rican production of The Glass Menagerie. During a rehearsal, I was standing backstage and decided to introduce myself to Caroline.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m a writer,” Caroline said, in her elegant English accent.

“Oh,” I said, thinking she meant blogger or diarist. “What do you write?”

Then Caroline threw me a curve-ball: In the 1980s, she co-authored a bone-rattling account of the Profumo Affair, which, in Great Britain, you might compare to the Watergate Scandal, except that there were a lot of sex parties involved. Caroline’s account, How the English Establishment Framed Stephen Ward, was a total coup: Few people involved in the Profumo Affair had ever spoken openly about it. The book was a bestseller. It blew the scandal wide open. Years later, the book would inform Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Stephen Ward. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Junkette”

31UKFHgIfxL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was an enthusiastic Sarah Shotland fan the moment I met her. But then again, pretty much everybody is.

Sarah made a splash in Pittsburgh when she dreamed up Words Without Walls, a writing program for people in prison. You can read my interview with Sarah about this groundbreaking program over at Pittsburgh Magazine.

But Sarah is so much more than Words Without Walls. She’s plainspoken and hilarious. She speaks with the subtlest Southern twang. We spent many nights yukking it up on her porch in Friendship.

We met in Chatham’s MFA program, but we really bonded over theater. Sarah is an accomplished playwright and has worked for theater companies around the world. She has spent time in Spain and China, Texas and New Orleans. Chatham’s MFA program attracts many students in their mid-twenties, so Sarah and I felt a little older, a little more road-tested. We are similarly laid-back, and similarly diehard about our labors of love. No matter how much time passes, we pick up our conversation where we left off. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Talking Tico”


Joe Baur is my doppelgänger. Or maybe I’m his. On paper, we’re practically interchangeable.

Joe arrived in Costa Rica shortly after I did, to study at the University for Peace. When I learned of his arrival, I looked up the usual sites—Facebook, LinkedIn—and was shocked to discover our similarities.

Joe grew up in Cleveland, while I spent most of my adult life in Pittsburgh. Like me, he’s a writer, videographer, photographer, podcaster, and traveler. He has produced sketch comedy, as have I. We both have Germanic surnames and personal interest in our Central European heritage. We are both avid cyclists and abhor automotive dependency, and we both refused to drive for many years. We were both avid contributors to The Tico Times, especially the travel section. We have both written for a range of publications about craft beer. We are both recreational runners and chronicled our first races in the tropics. We both married to our longtime girlfriends in streamlined weddings shortly before we became expats. We both moved out of our longtime homes and lived with our in-laws for a short period before the big move. We resided in Costa Rica for similar stretches of time, and our casas were located 10 miles away from each other, roughly on the same road. Facially, we could probably pass for cousins or even brothers, especially in Latin America. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Let Me Clear My Throat”

19178979.jpgThis is my favorite story about Elena Passarello:

We were in college, and the theater department threw a basement party. Someone had hired a DJ. The audio equipment stood on a flimsy foldout table. The music was loud and throbbing.

Elena had made friends with a small cohort from Manchester, England, and invited them to the party. The Brits were new in town and didn’t know most of the people there, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They started dancing to the music.

One of them leapt up and down. It was a wild, thrashing dance. Emboldened, he sprang in the air and landed in the middle of the flimsy, foldout table.

The table broke in half. Or maybe it fell over. Whatever the case, the audio equipment went flying. Piles of CDs clattered on the tile floor. The music stopped. The party stopped. Everyone stared in disbelief at the Brits, who were now huddled in the corner, shocked and uncertain what to do next. Continue reading