Monday, November 9, 2009

On stuff you can't make up

HALLIE: Reality sometimes trumps fiction. I remember one day I'm sitting in a coffee shop in New York, one with stools and a little counter across the front window. I'm sipping and gazing out when a man on the street walks by, his head buried in a newspaper. He walks smack into a metal pole. He rears back and punches the pole.

And then there's the time my husband and I were staying at one of those fancy hotels on a Caribbean island. A pair of newlyweds took the hotel's water taxi to nearby island and got stranded there. It grew dark and they became more and more desperate. The wife started digging in the sand and found...a flashlight. Really, she did. Not only that, it worked. They used it to signal until someone on the beach at the hotel noticed and they sent a boat over to rescue them.

I wish I could use either of those incidents in a book, but I don't think anyone would believe it happened, and I can't footnote it (*this really happened). In fiction, reality is no excuse.

Do you have any moments in real life that you couldn't put into a book because no one would believe it happened.

RHYS: Some amazing coincidences--hearing a familiar voice at the Berlin Wall and finding it was my next door neighbor's mother. Bumping into friends in the middle of Sri Lanka. I found a watch buried in the lake bed in six feet of water, dug it out and it was still ticking.

I've overheard some amazing things: I was once swimming laps and from the next lane I heard a woman say, "Of course, the gun belt weighs you down." Had to swim extra fast to try and keep up this conversation.

I was once locked into the gardens at Gramercy Park by mistake and was luckily rescued as it was getting dark. But I did use this in a Molly book.

But you're right--critics jump on any use of coincidence in a book when in real life there are coincidences every day.

ROBERTA: here's a funny true story that people have found hard to believe. In graduate school, I had walked out to the far parking lot when a woman accosted me with a dead battery problem. I told her that I did own jumper cables, but was not confident using them. She was quite scornful about my reluctance to take charge and my reliance on father/boyfriend/husbands in the past. She hooked the cables up, I started my car, and her engine began to spark and smoke. She grabbed a random male student in the next row of cars, all the while screaming: "We need a man! We need a man!"

RO: I love that!! We need a man!

HALLIE: I think I could put that in a book.

RO: I've had my copyeditor comment that one or two things I've written weren't plausible and of course they were things I'd lifted from newspaper the accountant who bought a horse and managed to turn it into a champion. I was in Costco today and overheard a 13-14 year old girl on the phone having an incredible conversation that involved babies, cops, and some rather extreme circumstances. I can only hope she was talking about a movie. That I might use in a book.

JAN: When I was working as a reporter in Rhode Island, I was listening to a radio talk show, when Raymond Patriarca, the head of the New England mob, actually called in. He wanted to tell everyone that he truly had a lot of respect for Arline Violet, the (then) state's attorney general (and a former nun), because she was the only honest (and presumably incorruptible) politician in Rhode Island. No one would believe THAT if you used it in a novel.

HANK: As a reporter, sometimes coincidences happen in another way. Like I'll be thinking--I wish I had a person who's been scammed by a (pick a bad thing) so I could use them as an example in a story. Then bing. I'll get an email from just that sort of person. How does that happen? And I mean, things like that occur so often that my producer and I just tell ourselves--If we need it, it will come. And SO CONSISTENTLY, when it's the right time, the universe provides.

But if you put that in a book, it's instantly ridiculous.

(I must say, Jan, I called the PR person for a certain government agency recently, and asked a question. She freaked out, and said, "Wait wait, I'm not allowed to answer that, you need to talk to a man." Truly.)

(Oh, wait. Here's one. We were in Nevis, in British West Indies, having a cocktail at an outdoor bar at our hotel. Suddenly we hear--Hello, Jonathan. It's Jonathan's law school pal, Supreme Court Justice Steven Breyer. I didn't know Jonathan knew him. And that's weirder because Breyer was also my boss when I worked on Capitol Hill in 1973. Put THAT in a book.)

HALLIE: The most bizarre, most un-fiction-worthy things happen all the time. So, what's happened to you that no one would believe if you put it in a book.


  1. My husband has the same name as another but older man in our town. They have the same dry cleaners (although we wives do the drop off/pick up), same bank, and are both on the same street (one is residence, one is business). I tried to use it in a book and my critique group was all over me - too convenient. My answer was its not convenient, its very annoying.

  2. HA! I love that, Dina -- I've come to appreciate my own name because I think I'm the only one with it. Never a mixup where I inadvertently picked up someone's still bloodstained prom gown at the dry cleaner.

  3. I was walking my 4-mile route one fall a few years ago. I heard a phone ringing, and thought, well,it's a nice day, they have their windows open. It got louder and louder. I looked down and there was the phone at the edge of the road in the leaves. Ringing. I answered it. A guy working on the road had lost it, and we arranged for me to return it. In my book, it's somebody calling for help who then disconnects. Think I'll be able to swing that?


  4. Edith - I love the set up. Sure, could be someone calling for help. Or from beyond the grave. Or the caller says "I'm watching you" and they are. Or "you've just won a ten-million dollar drawing." Or or or... Finding a cell phone ringing isn't in itself a coincidence. (I found one in central park, went to the directory and called "Mom" who came and picked it up.)6696

  5. There's a play--Dead Man's Cell Phone. Where a woman answers the ringing phone of someone who turns out to be dead..and then... It was just at the Lyric Stage of Boston.

    My pal Mary left her cell in her car--and then her car was stolen. She called the phone and the bad guy answered. She yelled--give me back my car! But they didn't.

  6. A veterinarian on another list I'm on just wrote an account of a golden retriever that ate a replacement Christmas tree light bulb his owner had left on the counter. Bulb didn't go through; dog had to have surgery. Vet kept the bulb and returned it to the client in a plastic bag as a warning -- "don't leave these out, your dog will eat them." Owner put plastic bag with bulb on the counter and ...

    ... the dog ate it again.

  7. Susannah - love that story. I, of course, not being a dog owner, am thinking - dog eats Xmas bulb, doesn't pass through, nose glows in dark.

  8. Hallie, I had one close to your lightpole experience. I was sitting in a bar in the Quarters one day when the Duck Lady came by, rollerskating and leading her ducks. For all the years she skated and was an institution in the Quarters, she always looked like it was her first day on skates. Anyway, she was twisting her head around and smiling and splat! she ran smack into a lightpole and sat down right where she was, legs straddling the pole. There was a young black jogger going by running in the street and he turned to watch her and... splat! he ran into a car and went down. What're the odds...

  9. "Duck Lady" sounds like a character out of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" - anyone know if that character who glued threads onto flies and then "walked" them was based on someone real?

  10. Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil is non-fiction -- I just bought a copy even though I read it years ago. So, according to the back cover, yes, REAL character.

  11. Oh Dina reminded me of one more. When my grandparents were young, a knock came at their door. A policeman on the stoop was very sorry to inform my grandmother that her husband, Charles Isleib, had been run over by a train...

    Luckily for her, he had already arrived home after work. Can you imagine how distraught she would have been if he hadn't been there when the police called? Can you imagine, two Charles Isleibs in the same town??

    I did try to use something like that in Fairway to Heaven. Editor did not like the coincidence at all!

  12. Okay..on another note, I can't help but notice that Duck Lady is capitalized. In my latest manuscript I've got a few characters who - until we know their names - are referred to as Eyebrow Girl (she's got a bolt in her brow) and Countertop Man. My copyeditor thinks only the first word should be capitalized. I think in this instance it's a title or name and should be capped. What do you all think?

  13. "Just because it's right doesn't make it good" was an oft-repeated comment in my first crit group.

    Coincidences DO happen. Hubby and I were standing in line outside Galatoire's in New Orleans. No reservations allowed. So when the restaurant guy came around calling, "Any parties of four?" the couple behind us suggested that we'd get seated faster if we paired up.

    We did, and we did those 'who are you, what do you do, where are you from?' questions. He was a pediatrician. They were from Missoula. Hubby had been to Missoula. We were from Miami. They knew someone in Miami. You know the drill. Only the 'someone' the gentleman knew in Miami happened to be our son's pediatrician.

  14. Both capped, I'd say, Rosemary, because it is a title / substitute name. I've got one in the coming book, too: Runway Dog, both capped.

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  16. Both capped, both capped. I JUST had this argum..I mean, discussion. About a little different thing, but similar.

    In DT, the Headmaster at Bexter is always and only called "the Head." As in "Let's go ask the Head what he thinks."

    They wanted it to be "Let's go ask the head what he thinks."


    I also have a guy called "No Hat." It would be silly to call him "No hat." That's just different!

  17. I feel so much better. ;-)
    I love this copy editor but she's also the one who didn't think a person could hide behind miscanthus..which is grass, but 4-7feet tall grass. Apartment dweller, no doubt. ..I may blog about copy editors next time I'm up.