ROSEMARY HARRIS: It's just occurred to me that some of our readers may not - ahem - be old enough to get the reference in the title of this post. An ancient comedian, totally corny, probably deceased by now, started many of his routines with the line "take my wife....please." (Henny Youngman, if you're interested.)
I've been thinking of my version of that line recently. Some of you may have noticed that I've been keeping a low profile on JR in the past few weeks. Over Thanksgiving I spent two weeks in Trinidad and Tobago helping to build a house with habitat for humanity. While I was there I received some rather startling news. A relative of mine had committed suicide.
Before you think me a heartless wench for even mentioning it on JR I should explain that we were not particularly close (he was married to my cousin and I hadn't even seen them for a number of years.) But there aren't many of us left so I don't have many relatives so I flew to the west coast to try to help.
There I learned that the manner and circumstances of his death were, to say the least, interesting. And they'd make the framework of a pretty good book. The inspiration only, of course, I'm not a journalist. And there may be lawsuits coming down the pike which I wouldn't even want to go near.
Ordinarily I'd never dream of using the personal tragedy of someone close to me as fodder for a novel, but - here's the catch - not only do I think the widow wouldn't mind, I kind of think she'd like it. And might consider it cathartic. The more I learned about their marriage the more I realized they weren't the golden couple I'd thought they were.
Dare I go for it? What do you JR readers and writers think?
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Ah,dear Ro. Welcome home, and we are thinking of you. And we celebrated your birthday here at JR!
As for your question. Well, I'd say--be very very careful. Is there a legal issue? It'd be fiction. "Any resemblance to persons living or dead.." you know. Still, if in the novel, the wife is--portrayed in an unflattering way, she might be upset. On the other hand, if I read a story in the newspaper about a similar situation (whatever it is) and I didn't know the person, I might not be hesitant to use it as the nugget of a possible story.
I AM a journalist, and the touchstone I use is: Would I be okay if someone did it to me?
But no one can make the decision but you.
LUCY BURDETTE: I'm with Hank, I'd be wary. And it's all so fresh--I might be tempted to write down some of the details so you don't lose them. And then let it alone for a while. Chances are, some of that experience will feed into a book at some point. It almost all does, doesn't it?
Whether we intend it or not... Hallie had an experience along these lines early in her writing, I'm sure she'll have wise things to say...
HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, Ro. How painfully sad. It's wonderful that you were able to go and be supportive.
Lawsuits in the offing? Prominent couple who are also your family? Yikes. As Lucy says, I went down a road like that once and, for me at least, it was a long way to an ugly dead end. Fortunately it was at the beginning of my writing career and I learned a lot about writing human drama. But I lost a few years to the effort and letting go was awful at the end.
Having said that, inspiration is pure gold, and real life is full of rich detail and wonderfully complicated emotions. If you're inspired why not pick up just a tiny thread of this to weave into a story populated with made-up characters. At the end, hopefully you'll still be able to say with the utmost confidence: This is a work of fiction.
RHYS BOWEN: I agree with all of the above words of wisdom. Write down all the details, all the emotions, impressions etc and if you decide later to put it into a book remove it from your family situation. Maybe make it historical or in another part of the world. You don't want to alienate your family, even if you're not close now. You only have one family, Ro
JAN BROGAN : We all steal from our own lives one way or another, but using something so recent and close to you will restrict you from really exploring the story in a truly fictional way, I think. Unconsciously, you will be making choices that are not based on what makes the best story.
My condolences to your cousin. I had a best friend commit suicide when I was 28, and it's really a very complicated grief. Even if you think your cousin wants you to write about it now, she may have a completely different take on it later. I'm with the crowd. Let it rest for now and
percolate -for later.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: Everything we experience is material, Ro. Sometimes I think writers are a bit like vampires, because we will ultimately use all our experiences, good and bad, and those of people close to us. But on this I agree with fellow Reds. I'd record the details, your emotions and impressions, then just let it stew in your subconscious for a while. Something amazing may come out of it that won't bear any obvious resemblance to the tragedy in your own family.
And so sorry about that. A close friend committed suicide a few years ago. It's a very difficult and complicated thing, even when it's someone not particularly close. My condolences to your cousin.
ROSEMARY: This is why I love the JRs. Not just good writing advice, but good living advice. I may write this story now and let it sit for a few years. Or forever. And the real story is still unfolding. Mine will go down a different path.
That's the great thing about inspiration, it just gets you out of the gate. It doesn't require you to follow it all the way through to the end.
Have any true crimes inspired you lately?