Lawyer and crime novelist Stephanie Kane delves into the complications and rewards of using real-life events as inspiration for writing compelling fiction.
Years ago, a housewife was beaten to death in her suburban Denver garage. I was about to—and did—marry her son. A family member was indicted for the murder, but on the eve of trial the charges were inexplicably dropped. We all tried to get on with our lives. Twenty years later, remarried but still haunted by the crime, I dug up what I could find about the case. That material inspired the murder in my first mystery novel, Quiet Time.
Every writer has a story that haunts us. Why else would we write? Although novelists routinely use real-world events to fuel stories, turning your own life into fiction poses unexpected challenges. How do you divorce fact from fiction, without exposing too much of yourself or sacrificing your story’s emotional truth? It’s a fine line to walk and an even harder one to write. But because coming to grips with wrenching truths makes us human, there can be surprising rewards. Here’s what I learned from basing a mystery on a family murder.
Before you start digging up the bones, there are three key questions to ask.
First, do you really want to do it? Put another way, do you want to stir up a hornet’s nest? If your story involves a crime or a family secret, and the people involved are still alive, there will be blowback. Stories like these are sticky. If the event was powerful enough to inspire you to write about it, it will have stuck in the minds of others too. Even if you think nobody remembers, and you write under a pen name and with the usual disclaimers, chances are someone will recognize you.
Second, if a publisher wants you to make changes to disguise or distance the novel from its origins, are you prepared to do so? Some changes may affect the storyline or chip away at the book’s credibility. Changing Denver to “Widmark” sounds easy, but it annoyed a local reviewer enough to ding me for it. Why, she wanted to know, did I so obviously change a key location’s name? In my thank-you note, how I longed to tell her! My publisher also required me to move the story up ten years. Dates establish setting: the story’s social, political, and cultural fabric. Changing them can do anything from creating subtle anachronisms to blowing a hole in the storyline, motivations, and subtext.
Third, are you prepared to forgo marketing the book as based on or inspired by fact, or to face the consequences of using that hook? This gets to the heart of why you’re writing the book. Are you using fiction to exorcise demons, i.e., achieve closure? Revealing that your story is a roman à clef will increase sales but may unleash the very forces you want to put to rest.
Next, what’s the best way to tell the story? Quiet Time is a novel, but there are other formats for turning true events into a powerful tale. To plumb the depths of my story, I’ve experimented with true crime, memoir in the form of a research diary, and a blog. Nonfiction formats provide cross-over ways to use the material, each adds dimension to the others, and any or all of them can be stepping-stones to a novel. Which format are you most comfortable with, and what story do you want to tell?
Fiction uses skillful plotting and invented characters to get at universal truths. You can audition the cast, twist the plot, and make the ending soar, but you have to make all that stuff up! Nonfiction is the opposite: Nothing is more powerful than facts, but like it or not, you’re stuck with them. Fortunately, between those poles lie two other formats which are often overlooked.
A diary or a research log can be an end in itself or a surprisingly powerful writing tool. Used to document your discovery process, diaries and logs can capture a dynamism and rawness that might otherwise be lost. Because their unfiltered nature encourages you to let it all hang out, they can help you determine if your story has legs and the most natural way to tell it.
Blogs and essays are models of compression and focus. Like a biologist wrestling an unwieldy specimen onto a slide, in a blog or essay you can slice your storyline into manageable segments and put them under a writerly microscope. Then you can experiment with the magnification and the lens. They are ideal formats for distilling the facts and exploring the emotions of a personal journey: what you think happened and how you feel about it.
Once you’ve decided on a format, you are faced with the story. Do you have a story at all? With autobiographical or intensely personal material, it may take more than one draft to clear your throat. At this stage it’s important to identify the story’s emotional pull. If you weren’t a participant, would the story interest you?
Now the protagonist takes center stage. In any story in which the protagonist tries to find meaning in a searing event, the arc is how he or she changes. Where did that experience take you? What did you learn? The event must be more than a plot device. It must have the power to cause change.
Next is point of view. Fiction or not, in first or third person, if the story is about discovery the narrative glue is you. I learned this the hard way. In Quiet Time’s early drafts, I drew from transcripts and witness interviews to try to get into my characters’ heads. The universal feedback was that my Greek chorus was annoying and incomprehensible. Readers need one character to perform the role of guide. The chorus helped unclog my drain, but Quiet Time ended up written in third person, with my surrogate as protagonist.
Who else gets a role? Unless you’re writing dystopian fiction, a novel dealing with a moral issue like personal culpability requires a clearly defined center of good. (It should be someone other than the narrator.) “Good” is relative. To locate its center in your story, start with the real participants. Where on your spectrum of good vs. evil did each of them fit? In a story that spans decades, cops and family members can be cowards or heroes at any point and in different ways. Who was the real hero?
That brings us to conflicts. Even in cut-and-dried murder cases, good vs. evil isn’t enough. The most interesting conflicts are internal, or between people on the same side. Did a sister turn on a brother, a father on a son? Cops and prosecutors are both on the side of justice, but how they view their roles and what justice means to them can differ dramatically.
Now to structure. Why worry about it? If you’re working from facts, isn’t it ready-made? But a timeline is not a dramatic arc. (Do your daily doings amount to drama?) If your story takes place over many years and the protagonist is looking back, you may be tempted to use multiple timelines. Like a Greek chorus, however, “now” and “then” chronologies can overwhelm a story’s structure. Compress or synthesize timelines to avoid repetition, proliferation of detail, and confusing and frustrating the reader.
If you are fictionalizing a true event to achieve closure, the real-life ending was probably unsatisfying. Any journey has two endings: where it came to rest, and where it left the protagonist. This is your chance to restore balance to the world, to make things come out right. What final twist or insight made your own journey worth taking and will bring it home to readers?
I mentioned rewards.
Four years after Quiet Time was published, I got a phone call from a cold case detective. A family member saw me interviewed about the book on a local TV station that was airing reruns. She read Quiet Time and came forward with a confession the killer had made. Thirty years after the case went cold, he was re-indicted and prosecuted for murder.
Stories like these can do more than lay your own ghosts to rest.
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