Before I get to the shamelessly promotional part of this blog, I’d like to submit a few syllables on the subject of using real events and/or people in fiction as opposed to creating everything out of thin air.
Just recently I read a blog that discussed this subject and it reminded me that not too many years ago I was having difficulty with this very thing.
For a long time I had it in my dense little head that fiction, by definition, should be fiction. I strove for that to no avail. Sometimes I realized I was “borrowing” from remembered events and/or characters, etc., and worried that I might be cheating.
Eventually, reading other writers, and reading about other writers, I learned that most, if not all of them, habitually mine their memories for real-life events and people, not only to inspire them, but to give their work color and texture. Someone said of Roald Dahl to be careful what you say around him because it’ll turn up in his next book.
There is the roman à clef of course, and we know some novels are actually thinly disguised autobiographies. But most novels don’t really fall into that category — however, I think that, if a novel is properly written, the reader has an excuse for believing the work actually to be autobiographical “because it’s so real. A person couldn’t just make this stuff up.”
When I was young and innocent I discovered Raymond Chandler’s famous detective Philip Marlowe. I was entranced and, in my mind Philip Marlowe was really Raymond Chandler using a fictitious name. I imagined him to be a robust fellow about thirty years old with plenty of attitude. When I found out Mr. Chandler was in reality a rather dignified pipe-smoking university educated sixty-something year-old gentleman from England. and the only iron he ever packed was probably a nine-iron, I felt really deceived. Okay, I got over that. The man was writing fiction. But his locales, his characters, all were so real that it read like fact. Real places, real people. And of course that’s what fiction should do: read as a believable factual account.
In a movie or on TV, if we catch a glimpse of a mike or even its shadow, we’re jerked right out of “reality” into the realization that we’re watching a movie. If we’re reading a novel and the bad guy puts a silencer on his revolver, same thing. We know people don’t use silencers on revolvers. Every aspect from locale to characters to all the little incidentals that enter into the story have to be accurate and believable. As the author, you’re God and you’re supposed to know everything, at least about the story you’re telling.
I’m often inspired by real events. Maybe I see that an employee of a convenience store was killed. A robbery gone bad? Normally that’s pretty straight forward. But what if robbery wasn’t the motive, but revenge, or the work of a religious fanatic, a jealous lover, a case of mistaken identity, a stray bullet from the street, and so on. That could be the start of a book right there. In short, my favorite tool in writing is: “What If?:”
I can’t help including little habits I’ve seen in real characters. In one book I’ve got a guy who says “basically” in almost every sentence. That came from a man I worked for as a kid. There are people who constantly belch at seventy-five decibels. People who constantly wink or blink or yawn a great deal. there are people who turn everything a person says into a double-entendre in some way or another, people who constantly fiddle with their hair. Women who flirt to cover their insecurities and men who talk tough to hide theirs….
Sometimes, like Raymond Chandler, I name a real city with real street names and locales, and sometimes I make the city up, or simply don’t mention it by name, but, I still use a real background from somewhere in my memory, be it a house, a bedroom, a store or a train. I find I can give the entire scene a lot more realism if I clearly see the surroundings myself. Any names are of course changed to protect the innocent — or guilty — as the case may be. In my latest effort, The Sand Bluff Murders, I use both. Sand Bluff is a tiny town that was bypassed I-5 in California. The town is fictitious, but in describing it, I have plenty of tiny towns to draw upon. And at the same time, real towns like Redding, Sacramento, Beverly Hills and San Francisco enter into the tale.
Recycling isn’t a new idea at all. How many times has Cinderella been recycled over the years and continues to be recycled today? People used to laugh at “Mr. Television” Milton Berle because of the running joke that he stole all his material. The truth is that comedians constantly recycle the same old jokes over and over; they just make a little change here, a little change there, and bingo! a new joke.
Only the other day I caught myself doing the same thing. My wife and I were talking about genealogy and I said I thought I might have a little Pawnee in my blood. She asked why and I said because my grandmother used to tell me stories about the all the wonderful experiences she had with the Indians when she came across in a covered wagon. That literally popped out of my mouth. But then I remembered. Once on a game show Peter Marshall suggested Priscilla Mullins and John Alden had some six million descendents in the United States. Immediately the late Paul Lynde said: “Wow! Priscilla really did come across on the Mayflower.”
I’d better stop before I get booted out of here, but let me just repeat, a writer shouldn’t hesitate to use real-life experiences and real people in books or stories. A little change here and a little change there and nobody can prove a thing. And now for a word from my sponsor (me):
“Human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.” — Jane Marple
I wanted my tenth mystery novel, “The Sand Bluff Murders” to take place in a small town. I usually set my stories in cities with a real police force, forensic experts, labs, etc., and thought this would be an interesting challenge. But the tale was a long time coming. I sketched some of it out in my mind and made a few notes on the computer, but before I got very far I came to a dead end. Nice setup, I thought, but now what?
That ‘now what’ sank into murky depths of my subconscious and wallowed there for nearly a year. Several times I almost deleted what little I had saved in the computer. I thought I’d do better to start all over.
But after all those months, a funny thing happened. Some of the characters began to talk to me. They were coming alive and despite my lack of enthusiasm, their voices grew more and more persistent. They were saying, “Hey, what’s the holdup, soldier? Sand Bluff’s just a little town. We can’t run around here killing people forever.” I realized then that I wasn’t going to get any peace until I let them get back to their grisly work.
There’s the transvestite ‘little person’, Jessica, who with his/her giant boyfriend, Terrence, runs a small trailer court and trains dogs. Terrence would do anything for Jessica.
There’s Larry Peters, insurance broker, über jealous (and with good reason). Every male in town would love to get his paws on Larry’s hot little wife, Twyla. We’d just like to get our paws on her diary!
Pop Jenkins prints the weekly Sand Bluff Banner. The paper may not be special, but Pop’s daughter, Roxie, sure is. In fact she may just be Miss Right. But she does have that kid. Maybe he’d be all right if he could stop talking Yodaspeak.
When Chief Raymond Castillo hires new cop, Jonas McCleary, Jonas feels very lucky indeed. He has just landed an easy job in a quiet little town where nothing ever happens. Maybe he can settle down in Sand Bluff and with any luck, he may just find Miss Right. After all he’s almost thirty.
But on McCleary’s third day in Sand Bluff, Officer Harold Ackers stumbles over a corpse in the alley behind the Blu Lite Lounge. To give you an idea of the caliber of Sand Bluff’s police department, Officer Ackers didn’t realize the man was dead. He thought he had a drunk on his hands. He manhandled the corpse into his patrol car and took it to headquarters where somebody noticed blood stains on Acker’s uniform and bullet holes in the back of the drunk’s head. When Jonas is sent to investigate he learns the town doesn’t even have yellow tape to secure the crime scene. What crime scene? It has already been hopelessly compromised.
Less than a week later, while Jonas is still clueless and still without any yellow tape, the infamous Twyla Peters is found lying in a pool of blood. No panties. Rape? Maybe, but if rape was involved — according to town gossip — Twyla would have been the rapist. Anybody in town may have wanted to see her dead. And it turns out she was pregnant. Luckily Larry Peters didn’t know that, or did he? What he does know is that he’s sterile. Larry makes a pretty good suspect. But what does that have, if anything, to do with the body in the alley?
And then a body turns up in the Sacramento River.
That’s when gossip, rumors, coincidences, lies, confusion and false leads give Jonas a murky idea of which path to follow, but does he really want to go down that path? It’s a path that leads into some dark corners, out to horse ranch Oak Park, back to the Blu Lite Lounge and finally where all Sand Bluff’s citizens end up, Weaver’s Funeral Home.
Sand Bluff may be a sleepy village, but even sleepy villages can have their crime waves.
“The Sand Bluff Murders” coming soon from Cambridge Books
Mystery Spot C.M. Albrecht’s Blog
“Reading this tale will be like having Jonas sitting in an easy chair and telling you what happened.” — Anne K. Edwards
“The mystery plot was amazing.” — Marina Stevkovska