By Louise Ure
On September 22, Joan Rosenthal, a 75-year old grandmother of five and a woman with a passion for reading, was shot dead on her front patio in the upscale community of Tiburon, California. This was only the fourth murder in the town’s history.
She was “dressed the way a lot of us look when we first get up in the morning,” police chief Mike Cronin said at the news conference later in the day. Nothing was taken from the house.
For reasons they haven’t yet specified, the police believe that Mrs. Rosenthal’s death was caused by someone she knew.
Less than a mile away as the crow flies is the home of mystery writer Judy Greber (Gillian Roberts). She was a friend of Rosenthal’s in the way that many Tiburon residents are friends. They would greet each other and chat at the local Safeway, comparing grandchildren’s antics and proclivities. They might run into each other at the Tuburon library: one the author of books there and a presenter, the other an organizer of reading groups and a docent.
But on September 22, all that changed. Joan Rosenthal lost her life. And Judy Greber was assaulted by the unthinking comment of a neighbor, “I’ll bet that would make a good mystery novel for you.”
She didn’t know whether to grimace, grin or slap the questioner.
I understand her reaction. What is it about some people that they don’t understand the distinction between writing about death and deception and having to bear witness to it as part of our lives?
I think I told you that when I was interviewed for jury duty this summer the prosecutor asked me, “How can we be sure that you can tell the difference between what you hear here in the courtroom and what you write on that page when you get home at night?”
“That’s easy,” I told her. “One is fact and the other fiction.”
What I could have said is that one is a mental exercise where I’m creating characters and angst and pathos out of the thin air, and the other is the gut-churning, eye-reddening, sleep-depriving horror of man’s inhumanity to man, reaching far too close to home.
It is true that writers draw inspiration from everything around them. I’m happy to use my neighbor’s squeaky voice, my high school teacher’s illogical mantra, a colleague’s singular tattoo.
But I could never write a crime novel based on someone close to me.
I cannot use that real rape. I cannot depict that real bi-polar relative. I cannot fictionalize a real neighbor’s murder.
It would be akin to posting someone else’s naked pictures online. Sure, you can do it, but only because you have betrayed a trust, because you have taken advantage of special access and abused the privilege.
And it’s a step away from humanity that I do not choose to take.
I can evoke the smell of fresh-spilled blood but I do not wish to imagine that that pool of blood springs from a friend of mine. I can write about violence and abuse but do not wish to paint the faces of my family into those imaginings.
I don’t mean to disparage writers of non-fiction works here. To catalog the descent of a Ted Bundy or The Son of Sam somehow falls into a different category for me. (Perhaps it’s only because they weren’t part of my circle of family and friends.)
Nor do I mean to condemn our fascination with celebrity (Michael Jackson’s or Steve McNair’s murder, for example). But if that celebrity was my step-sister, I don’t think I could read about it.
Call me a coward. Call me empathetic. But do not discuss the murder of a neighbor as if it’s all grist for the mill and tell me “it would make a good mystery novel” for me.
How about you readers and writers? Do you wish to write about a real life crime or violence close to you? And how would you feel reading about real crimes that have effected people you feel you’ve known?
Oh, my God, Louise…great post. You’ve got me thinking this morning. I’ve often thought about this subject matter, but you put it into words so beautifully, so effectively. I am horrified by the things that man can actually do to man, in the real world, outside of fiction. It’s strange that I can so easily explore the darkness in fiction, when true stories of innocent victims makes me queasy. I was a juror in a murder trial once and, while it was fascinating, I couldn’t stomach it when the young woman who had witnessed the murder of her boyfriend got up on the stand to describe it. Her words were not a performance, they were not fiction, she was not an actress on the television show CSI. She was real, and her words were real and undeniable. And the worst of it was that it ended in a mistrial, with the killer going free. And he was guilty as hell. And that crushed me.
Louise, I struggle with this issue a lot, although it’s never involved someone I know personally. But certain real-life events stick in my craw until I get them out and onto the page. For instance, a few years ago, I got a call from a CID investigator at Forth Bragg. A Special Forces soldier who’d gone missing a few days before had turned up murdered in Drowning Creek on the Richmond County line–with one of my law partner’s business cards in his pocket. Turned out to have no real connection to us, other than my partner representing him on a speeding ticket, but the image of one of these elite warriors ending up murdered in a swamp in North Carolina stuck with me, and ended up in SAFE AND SOUND.
Now, I make no claim that the unfortunate soldier in real life was involved with any of the skulduggery that the fictional Dave Lundgren was up to. But the idea of the crime and the fact it was still unsolved set off a lot of the sort of ‘what ifs" that often become the seeds for stories. But if the guy had been someone I knew, like the SF guys whose daughters used to play soccer with mine? I don’t think I could have done it.
Louise, wonderful post. The balance point between "real life as inspiration" and voyeurism is a fine one, and one that must be trod carefully. In my own life, there are unquestionably some events (and, with their consent, people) who have woven themselves into the fabric of my stories. But at the same time, my new job (as a paralegal working on behalf of kids in the foster care system), I see all manner of stuff that someone less feeling might view as story fodder. And perhaps one day, in altered form, some of it will be. But the truth is, having seen the terrible, tragic, awful reality, I don’t think I could write about a lot of that reality. Partly, I don’t feel that words can adequately express some of those tragedies, and partly it’s just that I feel like some families should be allowed to bleed, and grieve, and struggle to heal, in private, and some of the "best" stories are the ones which would be immediately recognizable in written form. Right or wrong, I choose not to intrude upon those families’ grief by fictionalizing it.
Good morning, all. Here are three fascinating and totally different responses to the post:
* From Stephen, the heartbreak of listening to that first hand account of murder and knowing that it wasn’t a book you could close.
* From JD, who has the heart of a lion, and who took the sad loss of a warrior and turned it into something much different than what really happened to that man,
* And Tammy, who may have nailed it with "voyeurism."
You’ve all three found solutions for taking that germ of an idea and using it, without prostituting the person or crime behind it. Bravo!
Great post, and great responses from JD, Stephen, and Tammy. Personally, I try never to lose sight of the difference between fact and fiction. Putting my characters through the wringer is a complex, constantly evolving, and often quite cathartic exercise, but introducing someone else’s genuine suffering into that world would be a violation.
But, one of the reasons we read crime fiction is for closure. How many dreadful stories do we see in the news that raise questions that are never answered? Highlight injustices where the scales are are never balanced? Fictionalising the story is often a chance to lay those ghosts to rest, but only if it’s done without exploitation.
Good point, Zoe. Crime fiction can often provide that resolution and catharsis that real life does not.
Hi Louise, I’m with you on this 100%. My friends’ son died under spectacular and mysterious circumstances and many people suggested I write a book about. The three of us actually discussed it but all I can see is the raw pain, the lasting anguish and the injustice of the suspect walking around free. I know others can write about that as non-fiction but I couldn’t do it. I think the difference is that in the fictional world, we have control whereas in real life, we don’t. I do draw on the emotions of the loss, that’s for certain. And it does serve to remind me to see every headline as deeply connected to real humans experiencing the consequences of loss firsthand so I never approach headline inspiration lightly. Thanks for articulating well such a complex subject!
This is such a great topic, and you’ve voiced so well why a writer might avoid fictionalizing real-life tragedies, especially when the people affected are close to her. I have fictionalized horrifying stories and have done so even when the stories came from people in my life. I’ll confess, though, that the closer the people are to me, the more responsibility I feel to make the story a more universal one.
All writers draw from real life in one way or another, but I think we all have limits. (At least, anyone I would want tor read has limits.) My series detective has a young daughter; I have a daughter. The daughter character is loosely based on my daughter, and their interactions are loosely based on some things my daughter and I have done.
Nothing bad is ever going to happen to that detective’s daughter.
Years ago, when my girls were still in prep school, the father of one of my youngest daughter’s friends shot and killed the mother, then turned the gun on himself. Both parents were from well-known Main Line Philadelphia families – the names recognizable enough that the story made the national news. I knew the mother well – liked her immensely, and had great respect for her. I was shocked at how many people – knowing that I knew the family – asked me when I was going to write a book about the murder. The very thought of using this tragedy – there were three children involved – makes me sick to my stomach. Even today, ten or so years later, I just could not do it. For me, it would be a terrible betrayal of my friendship with this woman, and of my daughter’s friendship with her daughter.
On the other hand, I will freely admit that I have a drawer full of newspaper clippings about serial killers and their victims, people being interviewed about the "nice boy" next door who was found to have buried bodies in his backyard, and various other articles on other equally nasty business. I wonder sometimes if I’m not a hypocrite, since I can get inspiration from true crime stories that involved strangers, but I can’t use a story that hit so close to home…
Lori and Alafair, it sounds like you both have the compassion and skill to turn those real life crimes into a universal truth about the anguish and horror that real violence can cause. That’s a real distnction and I applaud your decision and your writing.
"Nothing bad is ever going to happen to that detective’s daughter." I know what you mean, Dana. It would feel like tempting the gods.
No, you’re not a hypocrite, Mariah. You’re a woman protecting her own.
Great topic, LU. I am always writing about bad things that have happened to me or my friends or my family, but not very recognizably unless you REALLY know, and even then…
Working with the supernatural the way I do, there’s always a level of metaphor or magical realism that serves as a veil. That might have a lot to do with why I work with the supernatural, actually.
I write about a lot of stuff that is very close to me, but I think more out of my own horror and dismay at sad events than out of sensationialism. I just want to understand how the bad stuff could happen, and how to keep the aftermath from distorting us out of all recognition. I think, for me, it’s an effort to parse tragedy into redemption, at least in my imagination.
A friend asked me to write a true crime book about the unsolved murder of her sister. She said she would provide access to all witnesses and the detective in charge of the case. I politely turned her down. First, I think she wanted me to accuse the person she believes committed the murder and second it seemed like a sure way to end a friendship.
Fascinating. Here we have three authors who either DO use real life crimes in their work or have been asked to. Alex, do you ever flash back in your mind to those real characters as you’re writing? And Cornelia — you who could adapt from your own diary for each book — do the real facts ever interfere? (BTW: I adore the phrase,"an effort to parse tragedy into redemption." Amen, sister.)
And Patty, you made such a good choice. There were agendas and agendas behind her request to you. If you ever chose to work from a real crime script, I’ll bet your current police volunteer efforts would be the best source.
Interesting question, Louise. You know how it is, though – no matter what or who you base a character on initially, the REAL character comes to life fairly quickly and completely takes over, and then you totally forget that there was ever anything that person was based on. I only really remember when I’m asked in interviews!
Fascinating topic, Louise and one I’ve thought about a lot in my own writing. I’m a soldier and I write about soldiers. I take snipets of conversation and my own experiences and weave them together into what I hope will be a compelling story. But you’re right. There’s something about distance that makes things more palatable. There’s a violation of trust if you go with close friends or relatives. People may think they see themselves in your work. I’ve had people say when will that be in a book to me as well but I don’t know that certain things ever will.
Anything that I’ve observed or lived through has changed me or affected me, if I’m honest. If I’m paying attention and relating to the world and empathizing and caring. I think whatever I’ve gone through opens my eyes to how people feel, their motives, their reactions–and so as I go through the day and experience the good and the bad, I’m aware, or least, I try to be, so that I can be honest in the writing. There’s tragedy we experience, and we feel it, see it, breathe it, dream it, and it impacts our writing, whether we use the specifics or not. Personally, I draw the line at using anything specific of someone I know. It’s not fair to them, because as well as I may know them, I’m not inside their head and they won’t have an equal forum to correct any misrepresentations I may make, however inadvertently. That said, it’s like Alex mentioned above–the real events (if I’ve ever used them) are so far buried and disguised because the characters I created took over.
However, the theft of the pool table from the liquor store in book one was a completely true event. Pack Rat and Floyd live and breathe. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t know a book if it hit them, but they live and breathe.
My son once asked whether he could be a character in the book I was writing. "C’mon, mom, it would be cool. Can I be a bad guy?" Um, no.
I think a part of why we write (and read) is to make sense of things that are often inexplicable. And there is a wide range of things that don’t make sense — from falling in love to taking a life. Those experiences cover a correspondingly wide range of emotions. I can see writing about an event that hit close to home with the intention of keeping it private. But knowing that other people, strangers, are going to read what you’ve written– that’s different. There’s an "entertainment" factor to consider, even if the entertainment/satisfaction comes in the form not of voyeurism but of seeing justice done.
It makes sense to me that when we’re writing about extremely emotional issues (and all good writers are) it would be easier to sort out and articulate those emotions if we have some distance. It would be difficult for me to "say something" about or try to make sense of a topic if I were too close to it emotionally. If it were too personal.
I don’t think that’s cowardice. Not at all. I think perhaps there are degrees of empathy. You want to be able to feel (or imagine) what your characters feel so you are able to portray that with authenticity, but not to the point where it overwhelms and subsumes you. We each need to draw that line and I think each of us assign that barrier a different emotional latitude and longitude.
Alex, I’ve found the opposite this year … the book I was working on include the guts of a real life friend and I couldn’t get the real man out of my head in order to create the fictional one.
Jessica, I can imagine you choosing bits and pieces of each of your comrades in your writing, but I’m so glad that you don’t focus your creative efforts on the recreation of an actual circumstance. Yikes. That would be too close to the bone for me if I were writing it.
Toni, your acquaintances sound so weird that I wouldn’t blame you for using them just as they are. And I truly do believe the pool table story.
BCB, you’re very thoughtful in your reply but the upshot is that 1) you’re a very good thinker and writer, and 2) I’m glad you didn’t make your son a bad guy.
Louise, fabulous post.
I’ve only used a real case once, and I only used the basics of the crime scene. Even that felt awful. I’ve bee approached to write people’s stories before, and always refuse. I don’t want to be that close to the real evil. What I make up is bad enough. But I’m sure my work is influenced by real cases whether I want it to be or not, because several of my fictional cases have ended up in the news. It’s too bizarre to have something from your head come true.