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Wicked Creative: New Book by T.M. Murphy and Mark Penta Encourages Imagination

Sarah E. Murphy/Cape Cod Pulse - Lifelong friends T.M. Murphy, left, and Mark Penta, creators of "Wicked Weird Story Starters," will be selling autographed copies of their new book at Silver Shores Shanty from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday, August 12.Sarah E. Murphy/Cape Cod Pulse - Wicked Weird Story Starters features images and back stories of 24 characters, and includes blank pages for youngsters to fill with their own endings.

The creative collaboration between T.M. Murphy and Mark Penta, who just released “Wicked Weird Story Starters,” dates back to their Falmouth Heights childhood.

Full disclosure: T.M. is my brother, Ted, and Mark, whom I’ve known for as long as I can remember, is the Cousin Oliver to our Murphy Bunch. While growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, imagination played an integral role in our entertainment.

“Our small group of neighborhood kids would sit around Mark’s picnic table on summer nights and make up our own stories. Essentially, we were our own little writing group,” Ted recalled.

“We would also tape record them on my boom box,” Mark added with a laugh at the dated reference.

Mark was always busily sketching to accompany whatever transpired at the table, and Wicked Weird Story Starters is a nod to those simple joys of our youth. The book features a brief background and cliffhanger for 24 different characters, written by Ted, which come to life on the pages through Mark’s drawings.

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Ted, an author and creative writing teacher, said what makes this project different for him is that it’s picture-driven. Initially it began with Mark’s images, which he would send to Ted, who would then create a back story – the first being Gangster Gus, featured on the cover. But in some cases, the words came first, such as with Custodian Carl, whose key ring includes one mysterious, life-altering key.

“It was mind blowing, because I sent that paragraph to Mark and what he drew in response was exactly what I had pictured in my head,” Ted said.

For several years, the lifelong friends have been searching for another project to tackle after working together on Ted’s Belltown Mystery Series, for which Mark designed all six covers.

“We decided to use our strengths. Ted is great at coming up with character names and plots and I’m great at coming up with characters visually,” said Mark. “This is also right up our alley because we grew up watching The Twilight Zone together and creating our own episodes. We’ve always had a passion for mysteries.”

Another pivotal creative mentor for Mark was George Lucas.

“Star Wars made a huge impact on me. I used to copy the characters but then I would make up adventures with my own little comic strip,” he said.

Ted’s character creation is largely influenced by our parents.

“On family trips, my dad would point out a license plate and say, ‘That guy’s from Iowa. What’s his story?’ and we’d all make up different scenarios. In a way, storytelling was a means of survival back then, a way to fill the time,” Ted recalled.

“And my mother has always been interested in the psychology of people, and why they do what they do.”

The goal of the book, geared for ages 10 and up, is to foster imagination, something that Ted believes is challenged in a world where technology is ever-present. He has been using story starters as writing triggers since he began teaching more than 20 years ago.

“When my kids come to class, it’s like a Wild West saloon, and I have to take all their electronics away from them. It’s very apparent how difficult that separation is. But when you do that and give them a story starter and tell them no one else is going to do it for them and they have to get in their own head, at first they grumble but then after a few minutes, they’re having the best time,” he said.

Wicked Weird Story Starters

Book Signing, Tuesday, August 12, 6 to 9 p.m., Silver Shores Shanty, 465 Grand Avenue, Falmouth Heights. Also available on Amazon. To schedule a school visit, email Ted Murphy at belltownmystery@aol.com.

“At that young age, regardless of the culture, they do need that little trigger. But once they get that, they come up with some amazing material and it’s very exciting to see them get so excited.”

Mark, an illustrator and caricaturist, who also
teaches art to youngsters, agreed, adding that technology enables instant gratification.

“I think kids today are so used to something happening really quickly. But we’re just a couple of old-fashioned guys who like to use our imagination, so we wanted to do something that would help spark theirs,” he said. 

The book also encourages what could arguably be considered the dying art of physical writing, for it contains blank pages at the end, allowing kids to hand write the stories with their own endings, sort of a twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular when we were young.

“I had a student in class the other day say he was never taught how to write in cursive. That was kind of scary. So the act of them writing with a pen or pencil is actually a big deal,” Ted said.

Ted and Mark, who visited schools together after the Belltown books were released to discuss the creative process, plan to team up again and take their message on the road.

“We hope to inspire the next generation of writers and illustrators,” Ted said. “We want kids to follow their dreams.”