Monday, March 19, 2012

Real people in books

There are two variations of the question about putting real people into books which crop up every so often.  There's the arch, 'You won't go putting me into one of your books, will you?' when I have to bite back the reply, 'Not if I want anyone to read it, I won't.'

The other one, 'Do you put real people into your books?' is a bit trickier.  I say, 'No, not really,' which is mostly true. I have to admit, though, that on the odd occasion it's been very therapeutic to dress some pet hate up in a disguise that means  even their best friend wouldn't recognise them – and it's friends who are the danger, not the usually oblivious victim – and arrange for something nasty to happen to them.

In general, though, even leaving aside the dangers of libel, I find it more satisfying to create my own fictional character rather than trying to fictionalise someone I know.

On the other hand, sometimes it's a glimpse of someone you pass in the street that catches the imagination.  I was driving along one day and noticed an elderly woman standing at a bus stop.  She was hunched and weather-beaten, with the sort of nutcracker face which suggests that one day nose and chin will eventually meet and she was wearing shabby men's trousers, a worn tweed jacket and scruffy shoes.  But on her head was a totally incongruous purple crocheted hat with a bright bunch of pink, white and purple flowers.  I don't know anything more about her, but she became a major character in my book Lamb to the Slaughter.

And there was another borrowing from real life, one that took me completely by surprise.   When I started the DI Fleming series I had built up a very clear picture of both her – tall, athletic-looking, hazel eyes and short chestnut hair - and her DS, Tam MacNee – a wee Glasgow hard man who wears jeans, trainers, a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket, summer and winter.

It was only after I'd written several books about them that while I was watching some police dogs in training and admiring their incredible obedience and skill, that suddenly the memory came back to me.

Years and years before, when my husband had been housemaster in a city school, we lived in the boarding house (dorm, would you call it?) and we'd had problems with people coming in off the street and stealing anything they could find.  One day I came downstairs in our duplex flat and saw a shifty-looking man standing smoking in our hall – a man, yes, in a black jacket and jeans who held up a warrant card and said, 'Police.'

He was very good company over a cup of coffee.  He told me that vandals had broken into a nearby school one night and wouldn't come out but, 'We just got the bullhorn and said, "Five minutes or we put in the dogs," so of course they shot out like rabbits.'

I was impressed.  'What do the dogs do?  Round them up and corner them?'

He looked at me as if I was mentally defective and said, 'They bite them.'

It amused me at the time but the man himself disappeared from my memory – or so I thought, until he emerged all those years later as DS Tam MacNee.

So I've been shaken in my claim about not putting real people in my books.  And now I'm left wondering who the tall, hazel-eyed woman I know as Big Marge really is.

5 comments:

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Hannah Dennison said...

I always start off with a real person in mind when I create a character! But .... I'm sure you're happy to know, the real person slowly fades as the fictional character takes root - I promise!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Hannah, have to agree with you. There's something that sparks it all off, but it disapears into the character that shows up for the book.

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