Friday, May 06, 2016

Real People and Fiction

I can't resist joining this week's discussion about the use of real people's stories in fiction. I have done it, too. Because my character, Lizzie Stuart, is a crime historian, she is often concerned with cases from the past. I draw on real life cases, most of them involving ordinary people who would have passed their lives in obscurity if not for their involvement in a crime. 

I use the stories of these real people as inspiration and starting point, spinning form fact (or what is believed to be fact) into fiction. For example, in A Dead Man's Honor, the book began with a real-life lynching. I changed the victim and the crime that served as the catalyst for the lynching. I made the man who was lynched innocent of the crime. I inserted Lizzie's grandmother into the story as a child who had witnessed what happened.

A teenager girl's life and death was the starting point for another book. She had killed a woman and she was executed by the state of Virginia. The true story was sad and frustrating. The girl, whose name was Virginia Christian, was a member of a sharecropping family. She worked in the home of the widow who owned the land. During an argument and a physical confrontation, she killed her employer. I went to the Library of Virginia to go through the documents related to the case. A page from the 1912 record of Christian's appearance in court and the discussion of the charges against her appears to the left. Christian's story and that of her victim became the starting point for Old Murders. In my version, Lizzie encounters Christian's lawyer decades after he had failed to save his client's life.

In the same way, real people have found their way into my Hannah McCabe books. In the McCabe books, these people have been better known. John Wilkes Booth (long dead, but not forgotten) plays a pivotal role in The Red Queen Dies.  But there is another story involving ordinary people and an abandoned school that I would love to tell. In my mind that story has become interwoven with a newspaper article that I read about an investigation of a boys' school in another state. I have a victim and a case I would love to have McCabe investigate.

I am always interested in the ethics that we bring to bear in writing about real people. In my Author's Note, I acknowledge the inspiration/starting point of real cases and the people I include (if they might be recognized). I explain that I did research to learn more about what happened. But then I turned down another path, spiraled off into make-believe, and what was true was now blurred into fiction.

In my 1939 book, I do have real people appear in cameos. But I'm trying to stay close to what they might have said or done. I want to make sure that J. Edgar Hoover wasn't in Florida when I have him meeting with my FBI agent in Washington, D. C. I also want what he says to reflect his attitude about the looming likelihood of war and the real-life people being investigated.

This topic sometimes comes up when I'm doing an event. Someone from the audience will come up after it's over and tell me about someone they know who has been involved in a crime as victim or offender or an old family story about an uncle or a grandfather. This person often wants to write a book about what happened and is wondering whether to try a novel or true crime. I tell him or her that if there are gaps in the story and people still alive who were involved, I personally would write a novel and change the facts. But that's because I write mysteries.

Anyone else have these chats with people about stories they'd like to tell?

No comments: