Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Book of Pain

I have always been interested in the news, never been one to bury my head in the sand and shut my eyes to the world around me, and a lot of the authors I have deep respect for are influenced by the news as well. John Rickards talks about some true cases that influenced him when he wrote THE DARKNESS INSIDE.

It’s no surprise to regulars here that I troll the news, as I often post links or make commentary on something that’s happened. I couldn’t resist having a little go at Keith Richards for his admission that he ground up Dad’s ashes and snorted them with his blow, for example.

But every now and again, when it comes to the novels, I wonder if drawing inspiration from a true case would be too intrusive. I was recently reading about the wife of a murder victim, and her frustration that one of her husband’s killers receives royalties from a true crime book about the murder that she co-authored.

In the article linked above the co-author of the book, Rudy Wiebe, defended the involvement of the criminal co-author, stating: “The book is an expression of her trying to grapple with herself, about how did this happen? She's a wonderful woman. Nothing like this had ever happened before."

Yet I find myself more sympathetic with the victim and his family. We have passed laws to prevent people from profiting from their crimes in such a manner now, but this case brought it home for me in a different way – I can understand how the victims feel victimized all over again.

I wouldn’t want to do that to someone.

I do think there’s a delicate balance. I think it’s possible to draw inspiration and write a book without making it a duplication of the crime that triggered the idea. I also think that when we experience something ourselves we have more of a right to incorporate that in our writing. I was in Scotland in the wake of the G8 in 2005… I was also in the UK just after the bombings. I had the experience of people looking at me funny when I was in London, standing with my luggage on a bus. When I went to tourist sites my luggage had to be opened and fully inspected. And so, in a small way, I had experience with the events. Even then I’d say I was far removed from them, but when I read books set in that backdrop they impact me differently. My own memories and feelings are stirred.

I do think it’s absolutely impossible to write a crime fiction book that might not have a tenuous connection to some real case, even if you didn’t know about it. There isn’t much new under the sun (except maybe snorting Dad with your blow) and I’ve heard my share of weird stories. I had a hard time with Val McDermid’s book THE WIRE IN THE BLOOD because it reminded me of the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka case, but I’ve had the opportunity to ask Val about that herself and she wasn’t influenced by it. I know others who’ve read the book and never thought about it at all… but I lived in Ontario during the time those girls were killed. And so I bring that experience with me and project it into the story…. Certainly not Val’s fault.

This has been on my mind because there are some real cases and experiences driving the influence for my new WIP and I’m sorting it out in my mind – how far is too far? What’s fair and what’s crossing the line?

For me, the crime in the book needs to have a life of its own. By that I mean that while a situation might influence you – like this twisted story - the story behind the crime needs to have its own dynamic. You don’t just pull people out of the news, change their names and location and call it fiction.

It also needs to be relevant to the story. I don’t believe in making it any more violent than necessary. I won’t just throw details at the reader to shock them. That’s a hard line to draw sometimes, as you also don’t want to pull punches and hold back from putting in things that should legitimately be there.

So you aren’t likely to see anyone barbecuing their ex in my next book. For me, the influence is the psychology. What makes a person kill in these circumstances, what makes her go over there despite the fact that he’s been violent before?

I think the real issue for me with this WIP is the real experiences that factor into it. I told someone it will be torture to write this book, and for me it will be painful. However, it seems to me that when authors tap into their own pain and pour it onto the pages the books are more powerful, more poignant. For me, primarily, it’s about staying true to vision. This is the story. These elements are being incorporated because they are meant to be told. Holding back would feel somehow dishonest.

I wonder for all of you how you decide what crosses the line between being fair to tell and sacred, something that shouldn’t be used in a story. Do you have one? Have you ever read something that you felt was a shameless rip-off?

And to completely lighten the mood, because Norby sent this and I thought it was really worth reading:

Inner Peace

I am passing this on to you because it definitely works, and we could all use a little more calmness in our lives.

By following simple advice heard on the Dr. Phil TV show, you too can find inner peace. Dr. Phil proclaimed, "The way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started and have never finished." So, I looked around my house to see all the things I started and hadn't finished, and before leaving the house this morning, I finished off a bottle of Merlot, a box of White Zinfandel, a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream, a bottle of Kahlua, a package of Oreos, the remainder of my old Prozac prescription, the rest of the cheesecake, some Doritos and a box of chocolates. You have no idea how freaking good I feel. Please pass this on to those whom you think might be in need of inner peace.


Sonya said...

I'll start off with sticking to the original intent of the post here. :-) I'm SO glad there are laws passed that don't allow criminals to profit from their damned memoirs about how and why they viciously murdered people.

There is a line, but as you said Sandra, there's nothing really new. Change the names and the details, and what you're writing about could have been anyone, anywhere. And I completely agree about tapping in to your personal pain in order to write powerfully. I do it all the time. (I'm such a masochist...)

And, well... I think that Keith Richards thing was kind of sweet, in a twisted, psychotic sort of way. :-)

Now I am off to find inner peace before I start my day. Thanks for that!

Christa M. Miller said...

"You don’t just pull people out of the news, change their names and location and call it fiction."

Why not? The Law & Order franchise does it all the time.

Seriously, the best fiction takes the horrific crimes we hear about on the news and gives them a context, a way for us to process the horror. If we can't sympathize with the perp, we can at least understand his motive and his screwed-up past that led him to commit the crime. And we see family and friends start to rebuild lives, which provides a sense of hope (in most cases, anyway).

So where's the line? I think it varies on a book by book basis. I'd like to think that if the author can't see it, the agent and/or editor will. And if not, well... I don't have the experience to speak to that! But I would hope that if I ever affected someone that way, my writing would contain enough compassion that they wouldn't be *too* mad at me.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I don't know that I could ever do a direct copy. For one thing, there are legal issues. And particularly when you're bringing some experience you've had into the equation, then you really have to be careful. I lean character driven anyway, so while there is a crime (obviously) it's going to be how it carries over to the protagonists and characters in the book that's really of interest to me... does that make any sense?

JamesO said...

I'd be quite happy to mine the news and old true crime books for ideas, but only as seeds rather than full-blown stories in themselves. So far all the crimes in my stories have come from the darker recesses of my own imagination. When that either dries up or becomes just too extreme for public consumption, I'll have to start looking elsewhere.

More interesting is to start with a crime and then think what if it had just been slightly different...? Or to delve into the possible reasons why people do the things they do.

Just changing the names and the details is no better than plagiarism, really.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Given what you've written about that I've seen maybe it's a good thing that it comes from the dark recesses of your mind James.

Then again, what does that say about you? ;)

JamesO said...

Umm... that it's a good thing I don't get out enough?

Trace said...

LOL I love that inner peace thing! And there are things I wouldn't put into a story now, but did in my first book, which will never see the light of day. I actually went in and mellowed those scenes out a LOT. Still to violent though.