Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Writing Too Close To Home

by Mar Preston, mystery writer and guest blogger

I live in a mountain village in rural California, and my third mystery suspense novel, Payback,  is set in a fictional Sierra Mountain Village somewhat like the village where I live. But I assure you, only nice people live here in Pine Mountain Club. 

Nonetheless, the novel details a story that is somewhat like an event that happened here. Being writers yourself, you know how your ears go ping, ping, ping when you hear something that you know is a good story. Your imagination dances. You can’t wait to get home and make notes. That's what happened. 

The female protagonist is loosely modeled on a close friend of mine who is a patrol officer here. The male protagonist, the dismissive homicide detective from Big City Bakersfield is a composite of all the detectives I've come to know over the years in researching my previous two police procedural novels set in Santa Monica.

The villain? You have to have a good villain as a foil to your protagonist, so I have taken an event or two from life, splashed it around, and enhanced it considerably. Admittedly, if you’ve had your ear to the ground as far as local politics and scandals, and gifted with a good imagination you might draw some conclusions that the villain might be somewhat like this or that guy.

Now I’ve had the experience of readers identifying with characters. In my first book, No Dice, the villain changes his name, hoping to disguise his perfectly respectable Latino background, but even more to distance himself from a brother who is a felon, well-known to the LAPD.

I named him something like Gomez, which he changed to Edwards. Now Edwards is a name that would fit in a blue blood catalog anywhere. A big red, obnoxious Hummer had just charged in front of me on the freeway without looking as I was driving home, scaring me witless. So in the next chapter Gomez/Edwards drives a red Hummer. Never gave it a second thought.

The husband of a friend of mine walked out of the room on my arrival a few days later, giving me a dirty look, and making a stinging remark. Surprised, I asked her about it and she told me he had changed his name from Gomez and had I noticed that a red Hummer was parked out in the driveway? He had read the book ragged, pointing out to her where he was portrayed here and here and here in the pages. I was amazed.

For some people there will never be enough assurance that the name of the villain came from your imagination. Or that the local handicapped Church Elder is not the hypocritical philanderer who appears in your book. They think the School Superintendent who has red hair must be the local politician on page 234.

Some of you may have had the opposite issue. What about the fiftyish beauty parlor-Big Hair lovely who just knows that you had her in mind when you wrote your heroine who is, yes, a blonde but twenty-six, lithe, and a Cambridge graduate? You smile and keep your mouth shut, that’s what you do. My friend, the patrol officer, is delighted that the protagonist of Payback is loosely modeled on her.

All my friends and neighbors are excited to read about themselves in Payback. Any fiction writer knows that characters are a composite. For one thing, it’s damned difficult to capture all the nuances and contradictions of a character you’re drawing from life.

For another thing, that’s what your imagination is for. If you’re any sort of observer and watcher from the sidelines, you’re always playing the what if game. What if that biker over there was a Sierra Club butterfly collector? That woman with the sweet smile with the baby in her arms? What if she was a cult leader just waiting for the opportunity to tell you about her alien abduction and the real father of her baby?

Lately, I've heard rumors that a certain faction in the community are rumbling about retaliation for their supposed negative depiction in Payback

Every day, we are reminded that terrible things happen in this world. Readers of mystery and thriller fiction like to dance close to the dark edge. But retaliation rarely happens to people who love to curl up in an arm chair and read about a likeable or noble protagonist undergoing death-defying challenges.

I’m not taking these rumblings too seriously. We’ll see, won’t we? Nevertheless, if you hear about my violent demise, be suspicious.

Readers - have you ever felt an author had created a character partly based on you? How did that feel?

Writers - What techniques do you use to disguise any traits of real-life people that appear in your characters?

And, in case you're interested, here's a little about Payback:

A forest fire burning in the mountains surrounding a remote California village interrupts the Oktoberfest celebration, followed by the discovery of the mayor who has been beheaded. Sheriff’s Detective Dex Stafford concludes everybody hated the mayor for different and very good reasons, but nobody will talk.

Patrol Officer Holly Seabright of the village’s security force becomes a prickly ally in uncovering the hints and whispers of something much worse than the murder of the mayor. Stafford pools resources with the attractive and smart patrol officer on a twisted trail of discovery as winter and the big snows shut down the town. A killer beyond his imagining haunts the town. Sometime soon, unless they can stop it, there will be another death, and then still another.


  1. That must be one of the drawbacks of living/writing in small town. And it reminds me to be more careful.

    In my first book, one of the antagonists was a nasty woman named Ruth Greiner. I chose Ruth because it's short and biblical, and Greiner is a nearby street name that I like. Later as I was sending emails to mystery book club leaders, I was stopped short by seeing the name Ruth Greiner. Oops! I hoped she wouldn't find out...but she did and she emailed me, not very happy. I sent her a free copy of my next book and we're okay.

  2. I certainly never had this experience writing about big city Santa Monica. There I was only concerned that one of the detectives I didn't know would assume the big, good-looking protagonist was based on him. People, huh?

  3. Mar, In one of my early novels, set in a fictionalized town based loosely on the town where I grew up, I had no idea I'd based a female attorney so closely on a high school classmate (all grown up, of course) until a friend pointed it out to me. Fortunately, I portrayed her in a good light. But I pay closer attention now.

  4. Sometimes I pattern a character based on a real person, but that's rare and I always portray them positively. More often, the characters pattern themselves and don't necessarily put up with me trying to make them fit a particular concept. I'm always surprised when readers believe they see me or someone completely unintended in my books.

    While Aspen Falls is a fictional town between Aspen and Snowmass in Colorado, readers seem to enjoy the landmarks they're familiar with in those two towns, as well as the occasional trip to Denver.

  5. So true that characters emerge quite differently than intended--larger than life in some cases. And more interesting. There are far too many vanilla ice cream people in the world. I like pistachio pomegranate myself.

  6. Excellent post, Mar. I've used real life people and situations in some of my books and altered names and the facts to protect them. I've also agonized over the decision to do so, but your comment about not letting a great story slip by is right on the mark. And sometimes, there is such a thing as coincidence.

    Love the blurb for your new book. Sounds intriguing.

  7. I love your image of "pistachio pomegranate" ice cream, Mar! So much more interesting than vanilla! And the same goes for people -- unless they're threatening to sue you, of course! But with the disclaimer all novelists put (or should put) at the beginning of their novels, it's hard to imagine anyone winning that kind of lawsuit!

    Thanks for guest posting here at Crime Fiction Collective again, Mar, and good luck with Payback and your current WIP!

  8. Oh Mar, what you have said is so true!

    I used the name "Brittany" for one of the twins in my second novel without thinking and it is the name of my son's stepdaughter who is every bit as nasty as the one in my book :( Worse, in fact! No one has said anything to me about it, but I have to be more careful.

    A few people recognised our home town as Emsberg in that novel, but they didn't seem to mind.

    Here's hoping the locals settle down without lynching you :(

    I enjoyed this blog and THOROUGHLY enjoyed Payback. Now if Amazon will let me publish my review, I will be totally happy.

  9. If people had behaved better I wouldn't have had occasion to hear a story somewhat like the one in Payback in the first place.

  10. I highly recommend Payback, by the way. I had a lot of fun editing it! Great characters and compelling story, and it had me stumped right up to the end!

  11. Small towns...better than cable TV.


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