Being Human

by Zoë Sharp

This isn’t the blog I was intending to write this week. (And no, I wasn’t even going to mention Susan Boyle … Oh, drat …) But, something popped up during the current rewrites. Which are, incidentally, proceeding at the kind of pace that can usually be measured in terms of continental drift.

I have just reached a point in the story where my main protagonist, Charlie Fox, has arrived to see the wife of a client, and discovers the woman was badly injured in a helicopter accident some years previously. At this point, I don’t think there’s any particular reason for this woman to be partially incapacitated, apart from an unwillingness to travel, which has necessitated Charlie going to her. I could have explained this in some other way – that she’s simply too busy running her oil exploration business, for example, or that she has a fear of flying. But when the character came into my head, this back story arrived ready attached.

And now it bothers me slightly. I’m the kind of writer who likes things to have a purpose. In my head, I think of the main strands of a story as different coloured threads, all plaited together, twisting and turning in on one another into a tight mass, so the end result seems stronger than the sum of its parts. The more I can weave those strands back in on themselves, the tighter and stronger the story feels to become.

Of course, you can take this too far, and TV crime shows often do. Whenever you see an extraneous character – the relative of a victim, for instance – who has screen time beyond simply sobbing into the hero’s shoulder as the mortuary sheet’s turned back, you just know they must have had some hand in the crime.

So, this is why I have this niggling doubt about changing this particular character’s back story. Part of me feels it should have some vital significance, while another part of me thinks that, sometimes, you can get away with introducing an accidental injury that really is just accidental, otherwise, every twitch telegraphs to the reader that Something Important is about to happen. I remember years ago reading a book where the main character comes down with a horrible head cold about halfway through – and it plays a vital role in the plot. Every time that character sneezed in subsequent books, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In real life, people do sleep through their alarms, misread directions, or get stuck in traffic. In a crime thriller, such a mundane occurrence usually results in the discovery of a still-warm corpse your hero wasn’t quite in time to save.

In real life, people are sloppy, incompetent or simply mistaken. In a crime thriller, that would often signal a large-scale conspiracy or part of a sinister cover-up.

In real life, accidents do happen – often more than once to the same person. My brother-in-law, for instance, used to work on the North Sea oil rigs. He’s been in two helicopter crashes, ditching within sight of the beach. (And very annoyed he was, too, at having to wade ashore.) In a crime thriller, we’re back to cover-ups and conspiracies again, or attempted murder at the very least.

OK, more examples:

A friend of mine who is a retired Scene Of Crime Officer (SOCO was what CSIs used to be called over here, before they trendied up their image) told me that, although the book says you meticulously bag and label every piece of evidence removed from a crime scene, human nature often takes over. He recalled being sent to a scene where there was an abundance of evidence – I think it was may have been from a drug factory. When it got near the end of shift, the evidence was simply loaded into carrier bags and slung into the boot of a car to be taken back to the station and bagged and labelled correctly at leisure.

He gave me to understand that this kind of thing happened regularly and did not compromise the subsequent case when it went to court. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But if you put something like that in a plot, it would have to signify some vital twist. The drug baron would no doubt get off and swear revenge on the officers involved. Or the SOCO would be fired from his job to sink into an alcoholic haze, from which he would be rescued by the prospect of working One Last Case as a means of redemption.

Another example. When my Other Half’s appendix went bang, we duly trotted him into hospital and, after they’d found him a bed, began the usual taking of bloods. For this, a German medical student arrived and announced that he was going to ‘attempt’ to get a line into Andy. This did not inspire confidence, but then, neither did his ineffectual multiple stabbing technique.

Now, we know Andy has good veins, because they strike oil immediately whenever we go to blood doning sessions, but maybe that has something to do with the fact they use a needle about the same size as the insert of a biro and it’s kinda hard to miss.

So, then a junior doctor appeared (think Doogie Howser’s younger brother) and managed at the first try what the medical student had failed to achieve. I would have been impressed … had he bothered to put on a pair of gloves before he did it. Or if, having successfully punctured my Beloved’s vein, he realised he hadn’t uncapped the syringe he was trying to attach to the needle. Cue blood everywhere, into which the young doctor’s tie seemed to be wafting about precariously …

I was very restrained. After all, it’s never a good idea to annoy people who are sticking sharp objects into a member of your family. I managed, through gritted teeth, to politely inquire if it was standard practice not to wear gloves in the NHS any more. “I can’t really feel what I’m doing if I wear gloves,” the doctor replied.

Well, you’re a doctor, dammit. Acquire the skill!

Again, if I put this into a book, it might strike the wrong note in what would otherwise be a tense sitting-mournfully-by-the-bedside hospital scene.

The final example is another crime scene story. A particular rural UK force was quite excited to discover small particles at a crime scene that matched those found at another, apparently completely unrelated scene. Because, as we all know, serial murders are a lot more of a rare occurrence in real life than they are in the pages of fiction.

A major enquiry was in the offing … right up until a slightly embarrassed CSI owned up to the fact that, having analysed the mystery particles, they turned out to be flakes of paint from the tripod he’d used to position his camera over the body …

If my writing was of a more comic tone, then this is exactly the sort of thing that would fit right in. But can you get away with such moments of real-life light relief in a more serious novel?

So, have you come across any real-life stories like these, and would you put them in a novel or would you fear that nobody would believe them?

Alternatively, have you put real stories into a book, and been accused of going too far in your sense of invention?

This week’s Word of the Week is shambles, a noun meaning to be in a state of complete disarray. It comes from the Old English word ‘sceamul’ (pronounced ‘shamell’) which means ‘stool’ or ‘table’ as in a butcher’s workbench. During the medieval period, most English towns had certain streets occupied by a single trade, and the butchers’ street was known as the ‘shambles’, a street name still found in some old towns like York. Street butchers were supplied by the slaughterhouses and such was the mess of blood and animal parts by the butchers’ workbenches that the word ‘shambles’ became a metaphor for general mess and chaos.


37 thoughts on “Being Human

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Actually, one of the stranger reviews for my books said something along the lines of I must have observed and remembered the seedier details of life outside the mainstream because "no one could entirely invent this stuff." I always wondered if that was implying that I lacked imagination.

  2. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD

    I think you should take it as a compliment – that your scenarios come across as SO realistic people can only assume you’ve taken them from life ;-]

  3. Louise Ure

    The Octamom is my best recent example of a real event I wouldn’t use. Not because it isn’t interesting, but because "stupid" doesn’t show up often as a motive in my work.

  4. R.J. Manghas

    Hoo, boy Zoe, I have a bunch of examples, too many to list here in fact. However, they all include my girlfriend’s mother. She is a walking caricature (her mother). Before I met her mother, Jessi would tell me about all the strange stuff she did. I didn’t believe her at first, just because it sounded too ridiculous.

    Here’s just a few things:

    • The first time I went to Jessi’s house to pick her up, he mom was out in the drive way mopping her car, that’s right, mopping.

    Louise — The more I think about it "Octomom" would make a great name for a comic book villain.

    • On that same day, she was also vacuuming her drapes.

    • On another occasion, her mother kept saying how much she didn’t like fries from Friendly’s. So later, she joined us for dinner at Friendly’s. Myself and Jessi happen to have fries. So what does her mom do? Takes fries from both our plates and orders some of her own.

    I could go on, but I won’t. As you can see, these are the type of things that if I put in a novel, people would think I just made that up. Hell I didn’t believe some of the things Jessi told me until I actually met her mother.

    Louise — When I think about it, "Octomom" would be a great name for a comic book villain.

  5. Jake Nantz

    I remember a really bad movie a while back that starred Tom Selleck as a writer. The scene that always stuck with me was when he was speaking to a group of women who were fans, and one asked if he had based the hero of his James Bond-esque romance thrillers on himself. Selleck’s character gives a sly grin and says something coy. He also–almost immediately after that–spills his water, drops his eyeglasses, and does one or two other clumsy things. It appeared God had a sense of humor that day. But I’ve always remembered that because, hey, even heroes have bad hair days, or spend three days on the run and actually have bad breath, or bang their shins on the coffee table once in a while. But then I’ve had all of three stories accepted for publication, so maybe I’m going about it the wrong way…

  6. Dana King

    This isn’t really an answer to the question you asked, but I’d leave in the helicopter crash backstory. It serves two purposes: It may provide some misdirection for readers who assume it must have some deeper significance to the story, which makes it a low cost red herring. It also easily provides that little bit of depth to a chaacter that, I assume, has no other role in the story. She’s now a real person, we know things have happened to her, and that she doesn’t exist just forCharlie to visit. With a sentence or two, you can provide enough background to make this a more fully realized character without stopping the story dead. (Which I have seen authors do for minor characters, and it’s irritating.

  7. Allison Brennan

    I triple Dana’s comment.

    I love putting in cop and CSI screw-ups that have no bearing on the case on occasion, because I want to be true to life, but honestly, readers will nab you for "messing it up"–i.e. the CSI Effect. It drives me batty.

    I was at the morgue last week talking to the supervisor and he took a brain out of a container and showed it to us. In Playing Dead, I had the forensic supervisor tossing a closed jar with an organ in it back and forth while talking to my heroine, just for a detail. If I had seen the guy holding the brain first, I absolutely would have put that in the book. No bearing on the case, but it would have been extremely fun.

  8. Tom

    I recall one of the more humanizing moments in a John D, MacDonald book, when Travis is all a-hunt on a weak trail. He spends an hour interviewing a woman who has inherited ownership of a large orange grove. She is beset by the grove’s tendency toward entropy, but she’s determined to succeed.

    Travis walks away with a bit of faith restored in humanity. I learned about the orange business, and it has stuck in my mind for 30 years.

    Use what you will if it sheds some kind of light or gives you more color to choose from as you set up your ‘story shot.’

  9. Catherine Shipton

    I’m constantly amazed at people’s back history. Sometimes it’s horrible terrifying accidents that they’ve for the most part incorporated into their lives…other times it’s the strange connections people make.

    For instance, my Dad now is comfortably in a business man role. The stranger encounters all happened when he was a mechanic. Years ago Dad had an elderly german customer, who was always quietly spoken. One evening almost at closing he roared into the driveway and wanted his car looked at straight away. He was adamant that he needed his car tended to straight away. So Dad stayed back and fixed whatever needed fixing. The next day a car pulled in and two very intense men, asked if he knew the german man…Dad answered yes. After some discussion Dad relayed what he knew of the previous evening being out of character for him…and they took off. Dad seems to think because of the timing, the intensity that he thinks the two men were associated with Simon Wiesenthal. There is no way to be sure, except for the intensity of the conversations.

    Dad also met Prince Charles years ago. He said this tall bloke came out from the next door neighbours at a house where he was fixing a car, and asked if he was with the australian equivalent of Royal Automobile Club.Apparently Prince Charles was visiting his old headmaster from Timbertop.

    If Dad wasn’t as honest as he is, I’d have a hard time believing either of these encounters.

    Zoë as for the character who has been involved in a helicopter crash, as a reader I’d see that as just bad shit happens to other people besides Charlie…which to me is realistic.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Love the stories about Jessi’s mother! Er, what’s wrong with vacuuming the drapes?

    Reminds me of a tale from a friend of mine, the first time he met his wife’s Irish family. This was back in the days when British Leyland made a particularly dreadful car called the Austin Maestro. The Maestro’s USP was that it had a synthetic voice to give audible warnings for various things.

    So, my friend and his newly beloved were collected from the airport by her parents, and were being driven at some speed back to the family home, with his wife’s mother in the passenger seat, chatting away. Unfortunately, she had neglected to fasten her seatbelt, and the Maestro soon began reminding her of this fact in its irritating artifical tones.

    Still smiling and chatting, she fished in the glovebox until she found a screwdriver, and began stabbing the dashboard repeatedly until a lucky blow disabled the speaker …

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    We went to the Preston event on Lee Child’s GONE TOMORROW tour last week (and, trust me, it’s a terrific book, by the way) and the question came up from someone in the audience: "How much of you is Reacher?" He once told me that he used to deny any similarity, but people never believed him, so now he just grins and says, "It’s entirely autobiographical …"

    Interesting point about the hero having bad breath or a bad hair day, though. It’s something I’ve often wondered about the TV series ’24’ – if it’s supposed to be entirely in real time, over a complete 24-hour period, does Jack Bauer never stop to go to the loo?

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Brett

    "Life…stranger than fiction."

    Oh yeah. Like the time we were having a bus tour of Dublin, and the driver said, "I can’t really give you a commentary, because I’m a stranger here myself…"

    Or the waitress in very high-class restaurant (also in Dublin, by coincidence) who presented me with completely the wrong order and, when I queried it, asked, "Will it not do?"

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    Thanks for such reasoned input. But I wouldn’t say this woman has no other role in the story … I agree that this could be made into an interesting red herring, though. And it’s a common enough occurrence in people who spend a lot of time in rotary wing aircraft. I remember talking to a guy who was aircrew on a twin-rotor Chinook – not an aircraft noted for their reliability. He said that every time they successfully returned to base, the crew tended to give the aircraft a pat of relieved thanks.

    And yes, sometimes minor characters do rewrite their parts when you’re not looking, and it can be a difficult decision to let them run and steal the scene, or leave them on the cutting room floor!

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    It’s recognising that extra life without stopping the story that’s the tricky part. There was a minor character in FIRST DROP called Walt, who was a retired FBI agent, living on the beach in Daytona. He totally blossomed in the writing, to the point where I’ve tried to bring him back again, either in a short story or another book, but he’s become obstinately shy about stepping into the limelight again.

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Thanks for the tripling!

    I love all kinds of CSI/cop/pathologist funnies. I heard a lovely one about a funeral director’s apprentice was was about to start his first solo embalming and was horrified to discover the corpse still had a discernible heartbeat. It turned out to be a somewhat sick practical joke involving a pacemaker …

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JD

    Love the Twain quote. How’s this for a few more in similar vein?

    "Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us." Paul Theroux

    "I don’t invent characters because the Almighty has already invented millions … Just like experts at fingerprints do not create fingerprints but learn how to read them." Isaac Bashevis Singer

    "All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened." Ernest Hemingway

    "Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals." John Steinbeck

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tom

    I’m a big fan of John D MacDonald, so I can understand why that scene has stuck in your mind. He has the knack for getting a world of description into a few spare lines. I can still remember a little piece in ONE FEARFUL YELLOW EYE where he beautifully details one character, Glory, driving her Mercedes through busy traffic. Robert B Parker has the same knack of saying more with less.

    I wonder, though, if today’s editors would have made him cut that orange grove section for not moving the story forwards?

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    Lovely stories from your father. I have a friend, now long retired, who used to be a pilot and has a fund of wonderful stories about flying in the African bush, or in South America, that I WISH he would write down. Every time we see him, he casually brings out another and they’re gold, they really are.

    I had to laugh at your comment about showing that bad things can happen to someone other than Charlie. Since she became a professional bodyguard, I am fairly careful to make references in the books to the jobs she’s just been on – the ones where everything went off without a hitch – rather than just the ones where everything went Horribly Wrong. Otherwise, nobody would ever employ her!

  19. Catherine Shipton

    Zoë I hope you didn’t misconstrue that comment about Charlie.Twas more in regards to it would be yet another layer… I really do admire her shit handling abilities…and yes have noticed that you’ve threaded in references to off page jobs that maintain her reputation as employable…

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    Not misconstrued at all ;-]

    It’s just a point my Other Half points out on a regular basis. We call it ‘Murder She Wrote’ Syndrome. You only have to invite Jessica Fletcher round for a dinner party to be guaranteed a corpse face down in the soup course, and I’m trying not to turn Charlie into the Typhoid Mary of the close-protection world!

    And I just love that turn of phrase. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read in a review that "Charlie Fox is to be much admired for her shit-handling abilities …"?

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Sorry, didn’t mean to write ‘a point’ that someone ‘points out’ but hey, it’s 2am and I’ve been working 18 hours so far today … ;-[

  22. Catherine Shipton

    2am and an 18 hour day grants you huge latitude…in my mind, hopefully in yours too. I think a mention in a review, stating "Charlie Fox is to be much admired for her shit-handling abilities …"? would indeed be wonderous.

    In conversation, bitchy wine assisted conversation, I’ve actually suggested that some people I know could do with having Jessica Fletcher befriend them.

    Without coming across as a total suck up, I think you write books that have just the right balance of plausible and kick arseness…if there is such a word.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Catherine

    You’re very kind ;-]

    It’s only when I look back at what I’ve put Charlie through – raped, shot, stabbed, hit by two cars while on foot, hit by one van while on a motorcycle, bones broken, TASERed, drugged, and beaten up numerous times – that I begin to fervently hope that I never cross into an alternate reality where one’s fictional characters are brought to life and come looking for answers from – or revenge upon – their creators …

    Hah! Can’t you tell it is late and I are tired?

  24. john mish

    You only have to invite Jessica Fletcher round for a dinner party to be guaranteed a corpse face down in the soup course, and I’m trying not to turn Charlie into the Typhoid Mary of the close-protection world!
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