I can say with confidence that every time I make a new acquaintance who discovers after getting to know me that I write murder mysteries, they are bound at some point to shoot me a worried expression and ask, “Do you ever kill anyone you know in your books?”
I will reply quite honestly, “Yes.”
That’s why I have no friends.
I don’t always kill people I know. Sometimes I kill absolute strangers. Sometimes I make people who tick me off killers. Or sometimes I’ll make them just plain so nasty that everyone sees them for the evil villain they are.
However, as anyone who is not living under a rock will tell you, and me, and any writer, to blatantly write someone you know into a book can be a litigiously dangerous operation. Recently, publishing attorney, Lloyd Jassin posted an excellent article that goes into the legal aspects of using real people in Ask the Lawyer: Libel in Fiction in his blog post entitled: When Fiction and Reality Collide. As they say in the pharmaceutical commercials, if you have literary homicidal thoughts, call a lawyer.
For this article, I am addressing the use of real people and situation from the artistic point of view. What writer is not inspired by the things, people, places, and circumstances around them? If you make all those things off limits for fear of being sued, then you are turning off the faucet for an abundance of material to draw upon.
Most writers will not write someone into a book simply because simply because they got ticked off and want to world to know about it, even subconsciously (usually … mostly … okay, generally).
Here’s why. Say you’re writing a book and your boss really ticks you off. I mean really, really ticks you off and you decide, “I’ll get her.”
Seventy-two pages into the book, you insert your boss. Maybe you even go back to the beginning and insert scenes with her in them. You changed the name and maybe make her a dyed blond with gray roots, but it’s her none-the less and you’re telling the whole world what she did to you in the subplot of your comedy. Most likely, the reader, not knowing anything about what happened between you and the boss, will come away scratching his head and wondering what was the point of that subplot.
Experienced authors use real people and situations in fiction the way an accomplished chef uses ingredients in a delightful recipe. A chef doesn’t simply throw spices in because it strikes their fancy. With the first priority being the meal, the chef will only put in that which will improve on the final experience of the diner.
For example, in the first installment of my Deep Creek Lake mysteries, It’s Murder, My Son, Mac Faraday’s half-brother, David O’Callaghan is an officer with Spencer’s police department. In the original draft, David’s partner and childhood friend gets David fired by betraying him to the police chief. Days later, the supposed friend gets a promotion that David had been up for.
That betrayal happened to me. I was intimate with the pain and fury of being betrayed not just by a co-worker, but someone who I considered a very good friend who less than a week later ended up with a promotion for which I had been a candidate. That was what I wanted to bring across for the character of David. The betrayal and firing draws my protagonist Mac Faraday into the murder investigation.
The character in It’s Murder, My Son, who had perpetuated the deed bore only a very slight resemblance to the real-life culprit. I had already created the character of David’s friend before deciding to use the betrayal in my plot. I incorporated some of the real-life culprit’s traits, which were necessary to make that character capable of such an act, but not the person as a whole. Most of the differences between the real-life incident and the way it went down in the book were necessary in order to make it work within the plot.
In other words, like a chef, I chopped up the real life incident, used only what I needed, and threw away the rest.
As It’s Murder, My Son was revised and rewritten, David’s disloyal partner changed repeatedly until in the final product, Travis Turner was not a police officer, but a best-selling mystery author and the motive for his treachery was not to get a job promotion. The only real-life parts that remained were the act of betrayal and the self-serving nature of the perpetrator.
More often than not, it is a single trait or even a situation that struck me. For example, in my second book, A Reunion to Die For, there is a scene in which Joshua Thornton meets a detective at the local watering hole to discuss the case. The barmaid is incredibly rude. She is so rude that the place is popular because customers come to see how rude she is. This character is based on a server at a restaurant that a couple of friends had taken me to after my first book was released. I found her and the whole concept of an establishment becoming popular because of a rude server so intriguing that I used them in my book to add local flavor to that scene. I never learned the server’s name, drastically changed her appearance, and moved her to a town in a whole another part of the state.
I’ve used people I have not even spoken to because they inspire me. Recently, while on a pit stop on the way to Snow Shoe, West Virginia, I was sitting in the car when I saw a man come out of the bathroom, purchase a soda at the machine, and go to his car. He was medium height, black hair on top of his head with gray from the temples down, like a gray strip around his head. Under a hook nose that was so huge it looked fake, his mustache was bushy and gray and he had a gray goatee. He also had a pot belly above his waist that make him look nine months pregnant and about ready to burst.
This stranger’s appearance was so intriguing that I have stored him away in my memory to use later in a book. Not Shades of Murder. Nope, he doesn’t fit into that book. Nor will he work in Dead on Ice. However, maybe, he will work in Flash from the Past, due out next Spring.
Do I plan on killing him? Or will he be a killer? Maybe. Maybe not. You’ll need to read my books to find out.
About the Author
Lauren Carr fell in love with mysteries when her mother read Perry Mason to her at bedtime. The first installment in the Joshua Thornton mysteries, A Small Case of Murder was a finalist for the Independent Publisher Book Award. A Reunion to Die For was released in hardback in June 2007. Both of these books are in re-release.
Lauren is also the author of the Mac Faraday Mysteries, which takes place in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. The first two books in her series, It’s Murder, My Son and Old Loves Die Hard have been getting rave reviews from readers and reviewers. Lauren’s fifth mystery, Shades of Murder has been receiving rave reviews since its release.
Lauren’s sixth book, Dead on Ice, will be released in Fall 2012. Dead on Ice will introduce a new series entitled Lovers in Crime, in which Joshua Thornton will join forces with homicide detective Cameron Gates.
The owner of Acorn Book Services, Lauren is also a publishing manager, consultant, editor, cover and layout designer, and marketing agent for independent authors. This spring, two books written by independent authors will be released through the management of Acorn Book Services.
Lauren is a popular speaker who has made appearances at schools, youth groups, and on author panels at conventions. She also passes on what she has learned in her years of writing and publishing by conducting workshops and teaching in community education classes.
She lives with her husband, son, and two dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV.
Blog: Literary Wealth: http://literarywealth.wordpress.com/
Gnarly’s Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/GnarlyofMacFaradayMysteries