Grist for the Mill?

by J.D. Rhoades

A good friend and colleague of mine passed away last week at the age of
83. He was a fascinating guy: a veteran of World War II and Vietnam who
retired a full Colonel from the Air Force after 32 years in. Instead of
retiring and playing golf, he  decided to go to  law school.

The more I remembered about him, the more I kept thinking, "this guy’s
life would have made a hell of a book. Come to think of it, he’d make
a hell of a character."

That’s part
of being a writer. Everything becomes potential material. You start
thinking of everything you see as grist for the mill. My usual answer
to the perennial "where do you get your ideas" question is: everywhere.

But it gets a tad problematic when your
"grist" involves real stories, of real people, and you use those
stories as the springboard for fiction.

As a practicing
lawyer in a small town in North Carolina, I see a lot of tragic things.
Some of the things I see really bug me. They stick in my mind. And when
something gets stuck in my mind, the only way to dislodge it and put it
someplace where it doesn’t haunt me (at least not as badly) is to put
it on the page.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be ethical  for me as an attorney to do a roman a clef, an exact
re-telling of a story with only the names changed, but there are some
situations that are common enough–and tragic enough–that they get
woven into my stories. The most obvious example is Jack Keller, the
protagonist of my first three novels. Jack’s a combat veteran with
PTSD. Sometimes he has, shall we say, anger management issues. He has
flashbacks. He’s a walking time bomb who’s trying real hard not to be.

Now, Jack’s story is not specifically tied to any one veteran I know.
But living in a town that’s become a bedroom community for one of the
nations’ largest military bases, and working in the court system, I’ve
seen a lot of former soldiers with PTSD over the years. And,
unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot more. One even made the national news
not too long ago when former Army medic Joseph Patrick Dwyer, who first
became famous when the papers published a photo of him carrying a terrified Iraqi child away
from a firefight, died in Pinehurst of an apparent overdose of the
inhalants he’d been huffing to make the pain go away.

That’s a haunting story, a story that cries out to be told. But
when you use fiction to tell a story like that, where does telling
something important end and exploitation begin?

It cuts even closer to home when the stories you’re telling are
grounded in your own life story. Pat Conroy, for example, reportedly
outraged his family with his portrayals of abusive fathers and
dysfunctional families  in THE GREAT SANTINI and THE PRINCE OF TIDES.
Conroy’s sister reportedly refused to speak to him for years after the
publication of PRINCE OF TIDES, but his father, a former Marine pilot,
apparently developed enough of a sense of humor over the years to begin
signing copies of Conroy’s books as "Donald Conroy–The Great
Santini."  Most of us don’t expose our family’s secrets to the extent
Conroy has, but I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of a friend or
family member asking "is that supposed to be [name of someone you
know]?" or worse "Is that supposed to be me?" It’s even worse when the
answer is "yes."

So let me know your
thoughts. What are the ethics of using real tragedy as story material?
How much real life is too much? And how do YOU  answer the question "is
that supposed to be me?"


11 thoughts on “Grist for the Mill?

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    That’s really a good post, Dusty. I read that statement on the copyright page of my novel. You know, the one that says, “This is a work of fiction… …Any resemblence to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.”

    It started me going, hmmmm. Is that really true? Of course in the context of the book, or in the situations in the book, it is.

    Maybe that’s where the line, “Inspired from true events” came from.

  2. ljsellers

    It is the real events that stick in my mind that become the foundation of my novels too. But I always put a new twist on it, so that it’s not “ripped directly from the headlines.” And I’m careful not to create any characters that closely resemble anyone in my family, all of whom I’m close to. But that hasn’t stopped me from making fun of all them in my standup comedy, which they are smart enough to stay away from.Lj

  3. Louise Ure

    My brother’s wife recognized herself in a short story I wrote and asked, “Is that how you really see me?” It cut me to the bone, because the answer was yes. But the caricature I’d painted was only a small portion of the entire woman and it was unfair (and unflattering) to her. I make an attempt now to alter people and situations even more than I used to.

  4. JT Ellison

    Many sympathies on the loss of your friend, Dusty.

    The third book in my series is loosely based on a real North Carolina murder. I took one element from the crime scene that really stood out to me and wrote the opening around it. Ironically, it outraged my independent reader, who predicted I’d lose all support from mothers. When I explained how it was from a real case, she was shocked and understood what I’d done.

    This will probably sound terribly gruesome, but to make sure I’m accurate, I do use autopsy reports from the crimes I’m studying. I want to feel the horror of what’s been done so I can accurately portray that to the readers. The victims are why I write what I do — in the books, I can find justice for them where in the real world they don’t necessarily get any.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    First of all, condolences on the loss of your friend.

    As far as using real experiences in stories, I tend to do that, but only in a very general way. That is, I will sometimes mine the experiences I’ve had, or those of people I know, and extract the common threads of those experiences without leaving them tethered any more than necessary to the people they came from. I try not to directly render real people except as composite characters. How well that works I can’t say.

    Failing that, you could always take Anne Lamott’s advice (or was it Natalie Goldberg?): Make your characters a composite of several people, and then give them small…ahem…”private stuff” (as my daughter likes to say) so they’ll be less likely to come forward and claim the characters.

    And JT, I don’t think using autopsy reports is gruesome at all. I’ve read a few of them over my career as a writer and journalist, and I’m always surprised how much of the emotion of the crime comes through in the clinical descriptions of violence. One of the best newspaper stories I ever wrote, about a 35-year-old unsolved murder here, wouldn’t have been half as good had I not read the autopsy report, toured the crime scene with a retired Sheriff’s detective who worked on reexamining it, and visited Jane Doe’s grave. It’s all about human connections and emotions.

  6. Jake Nantz

    Wow. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend Mr. Rhoades. And as yet I haven’t created any characters too close to anyone I know, so I haven’t had to face that yet. I’m pretty sure if I was asked, and i had done it, I’d do a variation of what Harry Rex Vonner says he’d do to win a case in A TIME TO KILL: “Cheat. Cheat like crazy.” Substitute lie for cheat and that would be me (southern accent and all).

    I am, however, nearing a situation similar to what you’re talking about, purely as background for a character who was a scout/sniper in Kuwait City in Desert Storm. A friend of mine was in Iraq a few years back, and was clearing buildings when he was fired upon by a militant and his 7-to-10 year old daughter. He shot and killed the man, but the little girl just kept firing and hit one of his crew, so my friend returned fire to save the rest of his brothers. The one who was hit can’t use his arm anymore, but my friend still has nightmares (almost every night, according to his wife) because of what he had to do.

    That’s a real touchy situation, but this guy is like family, and he told me he WANTED me to use it in a book. He wants it there so people might understand that this war is not the open-and-shut case the politicians opposed to it are making it out to be. He wants people to understand that an enemy like this is more dedicated to killing Americans at any cost than the people who haven’t been there could ever imagine. That they train their children from birth to kill Americans, and that they were doing so long before we got there, because they are extremists who believe that their Messiah will only come when it seems imminent that Christians and Jews are on the verge of being annihilated completely. Since they assume (right or wrong) that any American is Christian, we must all therefore be killed in order to bring their messiah.

    I don’t think it’s exploitation if he’s telling me to do it. I hope not. I hope by honoring his wishes I’m honoring what he had to go through (and still is going through) to protect his family and all of us. But my biggest concern is that I make sure it’s done in a way that does justice to the event. Does that make sense?

  7. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dusty,I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, a person you obviously admired and cherished. Even if you never use him in a story for publication, you might want to write a private tribute while your feelings are fresh. I’ve done that with people I’ve loved and have been grateful to have those missives later on.

    Okay, enough advice.

    Using real people/situations? I use elements–mannerisms, attitudes, a turn of phrase — but try not to go further than that because it would feel wrong somehow. I haven’t analyzed the why of that statement yet.

    For example, I’ve considered writing a YA about one of my children who has a visual impairment. I haven’t written anything yet because I don’t want it to be a bio . . .don’t want it that close to our own lives.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Very sorry to hear about your friend, Dusty. My sincere condolences.

    I try not to use real people, just an essence or a theme or an idea. But no experience is ever wasted to a writer, from visiting sick relatives in hospital to attempting to remove the end of my finger (accidentally) with a chopsaw.

    However, several things I’ve used as themes in my earlier books have since come true – does that count? It’s one of the reasons I made the client in SECOND SHOT a lottery millionairess.

    I occasionally buy a ticket, but I’m still waiting for that $25million win, though.

  9. Tom Barclay

    Good that you’ve written about this, Dusty. It helps clarify a touchy situation with one of my characters. She is based in part on a public figure who suffered a personal loss about ten years ago. It changed her art. I altered the facts, but this discussion has suggested a way to make the difference still deeper.

    Thank you, all.

  10. JDRhoades

    Thank you, my friends, for the kind words of condolence. The Colonel was indeed an extraordinary person, and we all miss him. On Monday, the chair at the defense table where he usually sat for the call of the court calendar’s was empty. Nobody would sit in it. Well, one out of town lawyer, but everybody looked at him so funny he got up and moved. Still, the man was 83 years old, happy, universally respected, doing what he loved, vigorous and healthy right up to the shockingly rapid final crisis. If you’ve got to go, there are worse ways. Thanks again.

    Jake, that story is truly horrifying, and if he wants you to tell it, then no, it’s not exploitation. The only thing I’d be worried about would be doing it justice.

  11. Jake Nantz

    I love that everyone honored your friend by leaving his place for him (in spirit if nothing else). Bad JuJu on that out-of-town lawyer.

    I think with my friend I’m going to gloss over the violence in favor of the mark that remains on the soldier, so it won’t be too off-putting. I’m worried if I focus on the act itself, it will beA) too hard for anyone who doesn’t know a Desert Storm/Iraq vet to believe (even when it’s true), and they’ll think I’m being sensationalistic and political, or elseB)it will take away from the message he wants to get out about the realities of this war, and from the true lasting horrors it still brings him.That’s why I’m going with more of a background story element instead of actually using the event full-frontal in the next book. I think it’s the only way to accomplish it with taste and, hopefully, some dignity for my friend and his injured comrade.


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