Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Get Real, People!

The course of PTA meetings never has run smoothly, but when Tarver's unpopular principal turns up dead, Beth realizes that making bake sales wheat-free and funding class trips weren't the only things on the agenda. Then the local gossip blogs, WisconSINS, starts fanning the flames of speculation, and it seems like everyone is a suspect---especially certain members of the PTA.

****Murder at the PTA by Laura Alden

HANK: Here at JRW, we love debut authors! (okay, we also love veteran authors, and mid-listers, and bestsellers..) But theres nothing like opening a box of your first books! And todays debutante is LAura ALden (who you may already know, but we're not telling unless she wants to) --a true stalwart and a hardworker and a devoted mystery fan.

But as a debut author, she's now experienced a few moments that all mystery authors share. (Have you? She'll ask in a minute.) Here's one of them.

LAURA ALDEN: Back a few Christmases ago, my in-laws gave me a tee-shirt that read; “Careful, or you'll end up in my novel.”

When I opened it, everyone laughed and made the standard jokes. “Hey, you’re not going to kill me off, are you?” “Hope you don’t put me into one of your books.”

I smiled and made the obligatory response: “Then you’d better be nice to me.”

But honestly, even if I wanted to put a real person into a book, I doubt that I could. Difficult as my made-up characters can be, the degree of difficulty of getting them to do what I want is no comparison to how hard it would be to get real people to do my bidding.

For instance? Well, if I based a character on, say, an old boss, I’d be locked into that personality. He’d still do all those things that irritated me when I worked for him, and I still wouldn’t get a raise.
After all, why would he co-operate as one of my characters when he wasn’t cooperative in real life?

If I based a character on a good friend, that character would walk like her, talk like her, have her interests and her skills. Fitting a known quantity into a rough first draft would, for me, be like slipping a honed college athlete into a pickup basketball game. She wouldn’t fit and it’d be hard to smooth out the edges.

And then there’s the naming thing. If I turned that guy from Fifth grade who called me Four Eyes into a suspect, how can I possibly give him a different name? He’d still be the kid who called me Four Eyes, no matter what.

If I need a name for a character I look through the trusty 3” x 5”
spiral-bound memo pad I carry with me. One of the things I write down is names, first and last, male and female.

If the memo pad fails me, I’ll give my husband a yell.

Let’s try one right now: “Honey, I need a name for a forty-five year old man who’s been living over his Mom’s garage for twenty years.”

“...Erik. With a K.”

“Thanks, honey!”

But then where do my characters come from, if not from real life?

Well, they do come from real life. Of course they do. They just don’t, um, carry over directly. Let’s take my main character’s best friend, Marina. My sister-in-law thinks Marina is based on her. My oldest friend, I suspect, thinks she’s Marina. The truth? Marina is both of them and neither of them. She comes from all the friends I’ve ever had and all the friends I’ve always wanted to have, plus she’s a little bit of me.

The same is true with all my characters -- they’re me and not me.
They’re everyone and no one. They come out of my pointed little head and even I don’t know their origins.

So rest easy, dear father-in-law. Don’t worry, brothers and sisters- in-law. There is no way I’ll ever transfer your personality onto that of one of my characters.

Not that you’ll recognize, anyway.

(Heh heh heh.)

How about anyone else? How do you deal with the assumption that you’re sticking real people into your books? Do you put real people in your books?

Laura Alden lives in northern Michigan with her husband and two very strange cats. When she’s not writing her next book, she’s working at her day job, taking pictures for the local newspaper, reading, or doing some variety of skiing. She’s fond of long soaks in the tub, red raspberries, and blue skies. Her first mystery, MURDER AT THE PTA, was released in October and is the first in a new series.


  1. I only put real people in my first experimental and abysmal novel. After that I got smart and created characters, some of whom were composites of people. The problem was that people still thought I injected autobiographical data into my characters, such as the sexually abused little girl in my first published short story. I've tried explaining that not only was I not sexually abused, but also I'm not a widow, have never witnessed a murder, never solved a murder, never saw a dead person outside of a funeral, etc.

    No one understands imagination except other writers, and explaining is a drag. As I build up a body of work, I think friends and relations will finally understand that my stories are only an imaginary extension of myself rather than reality. At least I hope so. I find it bothersome. Good luck on the book Laura, it sounds like fun.

  2. In a deeply-buried early and rightfully-unpublished romantic suspense, I used a boss who had fired me and then killed him off--he was both shot by the police and blown up by his own booby-trap. That felt really good.

    Actually in the second Museum mystery I'm using a friend and colleague I worked with as the model. I hope she'll still speak to me after.

    But in general, none of my characters is modeled on a real person, although I'll cherry-pick certain characteristics when I need them.

  3. In my first YA one of the characters owes some of his personality to the guy I was smitten with in high school. That's about as close as I've gotten to using real people.

    I have used the names of real people because they evoke a certain response in me, however.

  4. Welcome to Jungle Red, Laura! And congratulations on Murder at the PTA.

    I like to name characters for real people -- like Easter eggs for people to find. But I don't base characters on real people, except myself, and often it's subconscious.

    We should sell that T-shirt at Crime Bake!

  5. Yeah, naming is sometimes so difficult! Hallie is reading my new "book"--say, draft--and I have a character Alex Oliveri. A handsome, hip, smart, driven newpaper editor.

    I loved the name, but Hallie thinks it sounds like a woman's name

    Grr. Now it sounds like a woman's name.

    Oh! How about this? What if it's Alec?

    Oh! I LIKE it!, Laura--without this blog I never would have thought of it! Thank you!

  6. Good luck with the book, Laura! I remember my days on the PTA board--quite a few people I'd have liked to kill off.

    I do use a lot of reaL people in my books, but fortunately they are all dead. And I try to keep them as true to their real character as possible.

  7. I try not to use real people as models although I do throw in the occasional trait - i.e. I'm a tea drinker and my main character is a tea drinker. But I have given a couple close friends cameo appearances (mildly disguised), just for fun.

  8. Oh yeah, hooray Laura, so excited to have you here with a BRAND NEW BOOK! I must say, I love the WisconSINS. Did your husband think of that too?

  9. Thanks for the welcome, everyone!

    E.B. - you're so right about explaining being a drag. The first time was fine, but when the 42nd explanation rolled around, it was getting a little boring.

    Hank, I think there are an awulf low of female Alex's out there in fiction-land. Alec is an excellent alternative, and I'll send you an invoice in the mail :)

    Robert, the WisconSINS title came from ... um, my editor, I think. She's a clever lady!

  10. (Sorry about the typos in the previous post. I hate when my fingers don't type what my brain tells them to.)

    Once I came across my dad's name in a book by Jonathan Kellerman. Talk about weird!

  11. Fascinating post. (I love that sweatshirt). I suspect I haven't written enough to include any really real people, but some are close to real... The kids accused me of using them whenever I told a children's sermon at church, but usually it was other people's children I was using.

  12. E.B., that's so funny. A college of mine came into my office, all smiley and giggly and as if she had a wonderful secret. She said--"Oh, I just read Prime Time ,and I learned SO much about you!"

    And I said, (for the billionth time), AH, it's fiction....

  13. And doesn't "Alec" make him into a SUCH a different person??? In a good way.

    So happy with this. HAllie, okay with you??

  14. Much better, oh androgynously-named one. Funny how you can get away with it for a female (character) but not so much for a male.

  15. Thanks, HAllie! Yeah, funny. Evelyn and Lesley and Beverly and even Alex, now, as we see. Or, um, Charlie. Okay for women, not for men.

    Sheila, right. OTHER people's children... :-)

    (Oh, I can't help it. My capcha is "Kinte." Speaking of names! Remember ROOTS????)

  16. I name places after people I know in real life, but for the most part I keep characters fictional. There have been some online buddies who've been somewhat characterized in my stories.

  17. I used to be stubborn about never using real life people in my books, because real life people are Way Too Complex. Until I wrote a book that was based on my friend's and my inside joke. The mc was based on my friend-- I just took a huge chunk of her personality and exaggerated it. I've started doing this with a couple of my characters. I keep my friends texts and e-mails to study their own personal vocabulary, the way they word things, I watch how they move and what quirks they have. It's um... kinda' stalkerish, so I only do this to the friends who don't mind.

    But usually, my characters just come from nowhere and I write about them because they won't leave me alone.