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 actual people, 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 their work, but to give it color and texture. Someone once 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 I think 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 a rock hard chin and plenty of attitude. When I found out Mr. Chandler was in reality a rather dignified pipe-smoking sixty-something year-old gentleman educated in 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, a reflection of lights or crew in a glass, we’re jerked right out of that reality. 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. Also, since you're God you have no excuse for not checking and rechecking your facts.
I’m often inspired by real events. Maybe I see on the news 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 'leventy-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 by 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 that very 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 her covered wagon. That literally popped out of my mouth. Pretty good, I thought. But then I remembered. Once on a game show Peter Marshall suggested Priscilla Mullins and John Alden had some six million living descendants in the United States. Immediately the late Paul Lynde popped up: “Wow! Priscilla really did come across on the Mayflower.”
I’d better stop while I'm still ahead, 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.