A Synopsis

I’ve been using WBTC to apply for things here and there — grants, residencies, workshops — and for one recent application I had to submit a synopsis. 

I found it almost impossible to write a synopsis of this project, in part because I feel like it’s still so early and things are really just getting worked out, but more than that because I have started to see the novel as a collage. There are two timelines, there is a screenplay, there is a blog, there are found diaries, there are architectural plans, there are notes and revisions on the screenplay. I haven’t even thought about photographs yet, but there will probably be photographs. 

3327 Brookview Road in Rockford, designed by architect Jesse Barloga and built in 1934. Photograph by Marty Mangas and Dick Marsh, loaned by Marty Mangas to Rockford Public Library. Part of RPL’s digital local history collection. I love this photograph of this house.

Synopses are about the story, not about how the story is told, so I had to figure out a way to talk about the main conflict and story beats while also (hopefully) conveying the patchwork quality of the project I envision. 

Here it is (minus the last paragraph, which had a spoiler):

Nina (44) has been living on her own in New York for more than two decades, doing freelance video production while she tries to build a career as a filmmaker, when her former boss Anne asks her to make a film about the con artist who crossed their paths in 2009, back in Nina’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois. 

At first, Nina ignores the request and continues with her life, making social media videos for a Brazilian philanthropist and trying to be there for a friend whose adult daughter is dying. But, frustrated with the lack of attention her film work is receiving and bothered by the memory of the man who conned her when she was young, she begins to experiment with ways to tell the story of the con, sometimes journaling notes to herself about what happened and sometimes writing the story as a screenplay. 

What Nina knows for sure is that, when she was 21, a man named Fitch ran a long con on the house museum where Anne was the Executive Director and Nina was a volunteer, managing to take over Anne’s role and swindle dozens of people out of large sums of money while siphoning art from the museum’s collection and illegally squatting in one of the fanciest homes in town. What she doesn’t know is why he did it, where he disappeared to, or why she found it so easy to go along with his schemes at the time.

As Nina’s reexamination of her past begins to shine a light on her present — especially her trust issues in both personal and professional settings, which reveal themselves through the simultaneous breakdowns of her relationships with the philanthropist and with her friend whose daughter is dying — she uses her screenplay to question her memory, writing scenes several different ways to explore what might have happened. She sends the scenes to Anne, who responds with criticism and corrections, adding her own memories to Nina’s. 

At the same time, Nina turns to texts from the past, including the blog she wrote for the museum in 2009. The blog tells the story of the house, which is called Windows because it’s made entirely of glass, and the architect who built it in 1927, Mildred Dawson. It details Mildred’s difficulties finding work during the Great Depression and her eventual collaboration with the WPA. It quotes Marjorie’s diaries and theorizes about her personal life. Rereading it after so many years, Nina provides context and commentary on the posts, which she begins to understand are in conversation with her screenplay. 

This leaves out several characters and plot lines — Nina’s discovery of her own family secrets, her job as a line cook and her post-work misadventures with coworkers, her relationship with her best friend, Janie. It doesn’t put enough weight on Mildred and how important she is to the story, and it definitely underemphasizes the setting of Rockford, how the history and architecture of the city shape the characters and vice versa.

Ask me to write another synopsis in six months and it will most certainly be very different. This is a snapshot at a moment in time in the development of a novel.