Curious Incidents

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.

  I just
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 Baltimore.
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. 

Unfortunately, as
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?



10 thoughts on “Curious Incidents

  1. billie

    As a writer who is also a psychotherapist, I have gotten comments about how I will never run out of material.

    I suppose if it were true that I got material from clients, it would bother me, but the work I do with clients, and their stories, is all so sacred it never comes close to the writing side of my life.

    My work as a therapist informs the writing – in my ability to get inside characters’ heads and in the way I observe a character’s motivations and what’s at stake, but it always surprises me when anyone assumes I just lift material out of my office.

    I have more than enough of my own angst, intense life experiences, and drama to generate a career’s worth of novels. Add to that a penchant for tangential thinking that serves me well when spinning off an initial idea, and I really don’t need to look further than my own head.

    Great post – lots to ponder with this one!

  2. B.G. Ritts

    I wonder if some people don’t get true-crime books mixed up with those of fiction where the spark for the story was a real incident. I won’t read books like Jerry Bledsoe’s ‘Bitter Blood’, which I have been told is an excellent chronicle of those events, because I prefer to be lost in someone’s imaginary world of misdeeds and mayhem, not a novelization of real murders. But I suspect many people enjoy reading both, and perhaps the two have merged in their minds.

  3. B.E. Sanderson

    This is a particularly interesting post for me right now. I’m in the middle of writing a mystery based very loosely on the small town I’m living in. I took all of this place, threw it into a blender and pulled a story out of the mixture. I’m not so much worried about the incidents, but rather the characterisations – whether someone will be able to see themselves inside the make-up of a particular character. (Especially when that character is the murderer.)

  4. toni mcgee causey

    If I find I’m using something (location, story, character) remotely drawn from real life, I’ll change the details to make it/them unrecognizable. I wish I could say that this was purely motivated by ethical concerns, but the real truth is, I don’t want reality intruding on the reader’s suspension of disbelief–I don’t want little details to suddenly interrupt the flow of the story, even if it’s only a “wait, you can’t take a left turn on Delaney Street, it’s one-way now” all the way to “hey, there’s no oil rig on that side of the lake, so how could she…?”

    I’m curious, Dusty — why not change the name of the river in the story? (I fudge location details all the time, which is why I’m curious that others don’t.)

  5. Louise Ure

    I seem to take snippets from real characters rather than real events, so the only whiners are those people who think they know the character I’m describing. (In the case of a nasty former boss, she was right. It was her.)

    And as a reader, I’m not crazy about “ripped from the headlines” books. (I haven’t read WTDK yet, but I doubt Laura’s book will fall into that category for me. She’s used a real event for inspiration, and then let her imagination run wild. As you did with the drowned Special Forces soldier.)

    The situation is worse in television programming than in novels.

    Every time the teaser ad for “Law & Order” crows that the episode was “ripped from the headlines!” and then crafts a story around a Michael Jackson-like character holding a baby over a hotel railing … or a Robert Blake-like character shooting his wife after they leave a restaurant … it drives me nuts.

    I’d much rather they use less “real life” and more creativity.

  6. pari

    I’ve never grabbed something heinous directly and used it (though my books are filled with local restaurants, tourist attractions and so forth).

    Instead, I let those darker nuggets stew. Last night, for example, I was thinking about a cousin and a friend — both of whom were murdered. I’m finally at a point where I want to tell their stories; I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them and the events that lead to their deaths.

    When I write about either of them, I doubt anyone will recognize the source — but those two books or stories will be an absolute memoriam in my heart.

  7. ken Bruen

    Dusty, broIn THE KILLING OF THE TINKERS, swans were beheaded and my publisher wanted to cut this scene as being far fetched………two weeks later, three swans were decpaitated and no, I’m desperate but I didn’t do it……I love swans too muchGreat postKen

  8. JDRhoades

    Toni: Drowning Creek is just too good a name to change.

    Despite the ominous name, however, it’s a beautiful place, beloved of canoers, kayakers, and fishermen. But watch out for snakes in the trees.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    This reminds me of something that Andrew Vachss once said: One of his first novels, “A Bomb Built In Hell” was rejected by a number of publishers when he first wrote it many years ago because the central pieces of the plot — a mass killing at a high school, for example — were too utterly implausible and could never happen in the real world. Looking back now, I can’t help but imagine that the editors who said that feel awfully silly.

    On the other hand, if we can imagine or think of something, odds are that someone else can, has, or will think of it, too. Is the book ripped from the headlines, are the headlines inspired by something someone with a surfeit of rage read in a book, or are writers just not afraid to let their minds go to the same dark places the denizens of society go? Or maybe a hint of all three.

    Side note: I totally agree with your assessment of What the Dead Know. When I read it, I set it down, said “Holy [expletive], that was a great book”, and then picked it up and read it again. And then I bought it from and loaded it on my iPod. And blogged about it on my reading blog (

    — Tammy

  10. Elaine Flinn

    Ken’s ‘swan story’ made me remember my very first book (buried in a box a few eons ago) and the many rejections I received because the story line was implausible. It was a political thriller-the overthrow of the South African government and the end to apartheid with Nelson Mandela eventually heading a new government. “Never happen!” I was told in several different ways…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *