Am I Missing Something?

by Zoë Sharp

We don’t have TV. Not connected to an outside means of receiving broadcast programmes, at any rate. This state of affairs is not entirely from choice, but more down to the topography of the valley in which we live, which means terrestrial TV is a non-starter. We also have a clump of very large sycamore and ash trees at the southern end of the garden, complete with preservation orders attached. I don’t mention this on the off-chance you happen to be a keen arboriculturist, by the way, but because they stand precisely where a satellite dish would need to point. According to the engineer who called not long after we moved in, we might just about get a signal in the winter, but as the dish relies on line of sight, by the time the summer foliage was in full bud, all we’d see on our TV screen would be snow.

On the one hand, it’s quite nice not to have the distraction of an evening that drifts past in front of the haunted fish tank. We have a tendency to go back into the study and work. On the other, it’s amazing just how many people’s conversational opening gambit is: "Did you see that episode last night of …" and we have to shake our heads sadly. We’ve also been able to throw away the initially suspicious and increasingly accusational letters from the TV licensing authority, demanding to know why we don’t have one, because they’re pretty sure we must be hooked up to an aerial somehow.

Instead, when enough people recommend a TV series, we buy the boxed set on DVD and watch that, and it works out well. No adverts, no missed episodes because you forgot to set the recorder, and no inopportune phone calls that always seem to coincide with the most exciting bits.

So, recently we’ve been enjoying two popular US crime series, which we’ve watched pretty much one after another. There are certain similarities between the two, never more so than in the two seasons we’ve just seen. Both shows are loosely concerned with the detection of crime through forensic means, and in both of them one of the characters has been writing crime novels on the side. And, wouldn’t you know it, both characters have achieved instant best-seller status, to the point where one was given a Mercedes by her publisher, and the other was able to go out and buy himself a Porsche Boxster before the first royalty cheque arrived.

And in both series a copycat killer took the grisly methods of murder described in each book and started using them in ‘real’ life. There are usually three such killings, each more bizarre than the last, and the characters are caught up in the usual race against time to catch the copycat before he/she strikes again. Oh, and, naturally, in both shows the debut writers almost instantly acquire a deranged fan as a stalker.

This is all well and good, and I can accept – not readily, perhaps, but I can accept – that people are routinely able to go out and buy $50,000+ motor cars with the advance from their first novels. And, yes, there are certainly some strange people out there who latch on to anyone they deem to be a celebrity. That isn’t what annoys me most about these scenarios.

It’s the fact that, in both cases, the authors use thinly disguised versions of their friends and work colleagues as characters in their books, often changing their names only very slightly, never mind their physical descriptions and characteristics. All done, of course, totally without their prior knowledge and consent.

The thing that gets me the most about all this is that these TV shows are written by writers. They know the rules as well as any of us, don’t they?

Now, maybe the laws of libel are less stringent in the US than they are in the UK (yeah, right!) but in this country you can’t go around basing your characters on recognisable people, and you have to be pretty careful not to accidentally use the name of a real person, regardless of intent. In other words, if you pluck a name apparently out of thin air for the child molester in your next novel, and give a rough approximation of his description and address, you’d better hope that no-one of the same name or appearance has been seen innocently hanging around outside their local nursery school, or you stand a very good chance of ending up in court.

When I wanted to include a fictitious major drugs company in the next Charlie Fox book, I ran the name Storax Pharmaceutical through Google to see what came up. (No matches, fortunately.) I use a random name generator website for most of my character names – particularly the villains – although I once suggested we should become literary assassins and offer to kill off someone else’s nemesis, somewhat in the style of Strangers on a Train. But only in print, obviously.

I’ve only ever included three real people in my books, and they all asked for it. No, they really did. The first was librarian Andrew Till, who always wanted to be included, so became an FBI agent in First Drop. Then Frances L Neagley bid to be a character in the charity auction at Bouchercon in Chicago, and Terry O’Loughlin bid for the same purpose at B’con in Madison. I’ve tried to include little snippets about each person that are personal to them, but the rest is pure invention. Fortunately, Frances liked what I’d done with her in Second Shot, And I’ll no doubt lie awake at night worrying about Terry’s reaction to Third Strike until the book comes out this summer.

But I’m intrigued to know what precautions everyone else takes. Do you do Internet searches on your proposed baddies to see what comes up? Has anyone ever approached you and said, "Hey, that’s me!" Even if it wasn’t remotely like them?

On a final note, I’d like to mention Patry Francis, whose debut thriller, The Liar’s Diary, comes out on January 29th. Patry is undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of cancer, and so won’t be able to tour the book’s release in person. Let’s hope the wonders of ’Tinterweb do the job of promoting it for her. Best of luck!

And on a final, final note, I love the idea of JT’s Wine of the Week, but I’m not a big drinker, so I thought I’d have a Word of the Week instead. This week’s word that caught my fancy is arcanist. From arcane, meaning secret or mysterious, an arcanist is someone who has knowledge of a secret manufacturing process, especially in ceramics.

9 thoughts on “Am I Missing Something?

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    “Haunted fish tank.”…Heh. I love it.

    People often ask me, “how do you have time to write, considering you still practice law in your day job?” I tell them that it’s amazing how much you can get done if you cut most TV out of your life. The WGA writer’s strike has been a great boon to me, actually.

    Re: “real characters” in your books: I too have based characters on RL people, but only with permission. (Yo, Markey! Respect). But my favorite story is from a friend of mine who shall remain anonymous (let’s call her K.) One of K’s freinds was going through a bad breakup and asked K “could you kill my ex? In one of your books, I mean.” So she did, putting everyone of Ex-hubby’s loathsome qualities (and I am given to understand there were a lot of them) onto the victim who perished early on in an especially gruesome way. K’s friend was happy. Loathsome Ex read the book and told K. he loved it…he never recognized himself.

  2. pari noskin taichert

    Hmmmm. Maybe I’ll murder an arcanist in my next book . . .

    Zoe,I often use Google to ensure that some of the names I make up don’t exist. But I do use real names as well — for the reasons you stated or because of a charity auction. I also use the real names of restaurants and other businesses in the small towns about which I write. So far, no complaints.

    I did run into one small problem with a less-than-admirable character in my first book. It turned out that there was a prominent citizen by that name actually living in the town. However, it was a moderately common name and I never heard from him (thank goodness).

    That said . . . I’m smarter now.

  3. G. T. Karber

    Wasn’t sure if you were joking about the comparison between libel laws, so I apologize if I cause offense.

    Libel laws in the US are significantly less strict than they are in the UK. For example, a man named Michael Crowley wrote a cover story in The New Republic attaching Michael Crichton’s denial of global warming. Crawley is a Washington-based political journalist, and he attended Yale University.

    Michael Crichton said nothing, and when his next novel came out, Next, “Mick Crowley” was a Washington-based political columnist, Yale graduate … and child rapist.

    You can read about it here:

  4. G. T. Karber

    Just wanted to clarify that I’m not defending Crichton for being a asshole. I just wanted to point it out.

    There have also been some fairly famous Roman a clefs in America, Valley of the Dolls perhaps being the most famous.

    Although I always thought the “book written about everyone around them” was just a cliched thing for the writers of the show to do, because then we can look forward to several episodes of characters complaining about how they are depicted.

  5. JT Ellison

    Does this mean we have to use the Word of the Day in a sentence?

    “Earl Brooks used his skill as an arcanist to hide his penchant for killing.”

    Libel — I think GT is right, the laws are less stringent here. I avoid being a bitch and raking anyone that I know over the coals. Sometimes that mindset even works ; )

  6. Zoe Sharp

    Libel is a very interesting subject. Whole print runs of books have been pulped either because of it, or to avoid it. Not many people are aware how much it relates to the internet as much as print.

    And yes, I do use names of real restaurants and hotels, etc, but I check with them first that it’s OK, and always keep the business card of the person I spoke to, just so I can refer back to it later. I set part of the action of Second Shot at the White Mountain Hotel in North Conway, and one scene takes place in a restaurant in the town, Jonathan’s, but I made sure the military surplus store where bad things happen, was set somewhere else. Good job, too, because shortly before the book came out, there was a robbery at the military surplus store that’s actually in North Conway, during which three people were killed. Spooky – and not in a good way.

    GT, I suspect Mr Crighton would have been *so* open to being sued over here …

    And you’re right, Dusty, real prats very rarely recognise themselves in print.

    Sorry about the arcanist thing, but I have a dictionary covered in post-it notes for words that catch my fancy and I had to find a home for them somewhere!

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