By J.D. Rhoades
Alex’s post below on collecting characters set me to thinking about how we, as writers, take the "flotsam and jetsam" in our minds and use it as raw material. (Great image, Alex). But we don’t just collect characters. Sometimes, it’s a real life incident that sticks in our minds, that nags at us, that becomes like the grain of sand that irritates the oyster into the work of creation.
recently finished Laura Lippman’s bestselling novel, WHAT THE DEAD KNOW. As you
no doubt have heard by now, it is an excellent book, an amazing book, the kind
of book that you put down at the end and go “holy [expletive deleted], that was
A central point around which the plot revolves
is the disappearance in the mid-1970’s of a pair of young sisters from a mall
In the Afterword, the divine Ms. Lippman talks about her memories (shared with
all Baltimoreans of her generation) of how the real-life disappearance of two sisters
from a Baltimore mall rocked the city in the late mid-70’s. But the book isn’t “based on” the
real life disappearances. The resolution of the mystery in that book bears no relation to what happened to the actual Lyons sisters.
Laura relates in her blog The Memory Project, some people just don’t get it. In
fact, some ninny apparently asked her if she “chose to use a real-life
inspiration for WTDK” because she
thought it would help sell more books.” (You can read the response she wished
she’d had at the tip of her tongue here. Suffice it to say that Laura is much,
much nicer than I am).
I’ve run into this sort of thing myself. Since I still practice law, I’m frequently asked if any of the incidents in my books are based on what’s happened to real clients. And one reviewer, who no doubt meant
well, said that I must have observed and recalled “the seedy details”,
because “no one could totally invent this stuff.” I’ll take that as a
compliment, and not a claim that I lack imagination.
It’s certainly true that we learn to use the stuff we’ve run across in our own lives as raw
material. But by the time those real-life incidents have made their way into your story, they’ve been mixed with other memories, chopped, stirred, blended, and churned around to the point where
you can’t really say that the story is ‘based on” them.
Case in point: My
next book has a scene in which the mutilated body of a missing Special Forces
soldier is found floating in Drowning Creek, in Richmond County, North Carolina. Many years ago, when I was a
lawyer still wet behind the ears, the local papers were full of the story of a
Special Forces soldier who’d gone missing and whose body was eventually found
floating in Drowning Creek.
Do I think that unfortunate young man was involved
in the same kind of nefarious doings described in the book? Not at all. It was
just an incident that stuck in my head, because shortly after the body was found,
my law partner got a call from a CID agent over at Fort Bragg.
Our firm card had been found in the man’s pocket. We never were sure why. And as far as I know, they
never figured out how or why the fellow died. But that image: of one of these guys who seem ten feet tall and bulletproof suddenly disappearing, then turning up mysteriously dead, stuck with me. Eventually, the image, not the actual man himself, found its way onto the
page. The explanation of how he got there? Total fabrication, spun out of webs of "what if…" and "how about…".
Do I worry that I’ll be accused of exploiting that tragedy? Do I worry that a family member of that dead soldier will e-mail me and ask why I’ve defamed the memory of their lost kin? A little. But if it happens, I’ll tell the truth: in the end, we make stuff up.
So, writers: have you ever worried that an incident in your books or stories is a little too close to one in real life? Have you ever been confronted with someone claiming you’d exploited their or someone else’s real life story?
And readers: has anything you’ve read seemed a little too close to real life tragedy (or comedy) for your comfort?