“Where's the guy or girl who can stick out their novel in the midst of media furore and say "fuck you, I'm not exploiting this, you are, and I've got interesting things to say"?” – Steve Mosby
(Edited to note: The better post is here.)
By the time I got back to the comments yesterday (moderating them can be a bit of a pain) I almost didn’t know where to begin in replying. The wheels were still turning (and after a long chat with someone from Dundee about so many things I can never mention on my blog that was hardly surprising) and I think I finally started to process some of what bothers me about blatantly copying real cases.
It’s about how you do it, not that you do it. In the same way that we have our debates about gratuitous violence in fiction and where the line is, talk about using shock to sell, candidly ripping off a highly publicized and controversial case may be nothing more than a gimmick to get people to pick up the book and make a name.
Do people have the right to do that? I suppose they do. What turns me off about the blatant cases is that I do wonder if the author of fiction actually has any imagination or capacity for creation. I’m not tarring all works inspired by true stories with the same brush. Like gratuitous violence or sex, to some degree blatant exploitation of a real case will be in the eye of the beholder.
I’m more interested in insights about human behaviour than perspectives on specific scenarios.
For me, I think that’s the main point. A real case may be an ideal launch point to address specific issues in your work, but I don’t think that conveying insight about human behaviour has to rely on a strict representation of a real situation.
Steve raised some interesting points in his comment on yesterday’s post and when he asked where in crime fiction were those “unafraid to tackle confrontational themes in their fiction” I thought, “I’m not.”
The only difference is that to this point I haven’t done a literal representation of real people, and I don’t plan to at this time. Everything a person writes can be shaded by their own experiences and perspectives, and those things will trickle through at times, but there are some specific drawbacks of working off of real cases;
1. If it’s blatant you risk pulling people out of the story.
2. It risks becoming a commentary on just that scenario, not on a larger issue in general.
It’s the second point that really hits with me. I’m more interested in commentary on concepts than specifics. I don’t need to cite Mary Kay Letourneau in order to make a commentary on abusive sexual relationships between adults and children, or to make a commentary on sex in general. I don’t need to point to a former president to ask what is or is not considered sexual relations. If I want to make a commentary on the abuse of political power I need not limit myself to any one government, political party or scenario…
My agenda is to tell a captivating story that almost sneaks the deeper thoughts in. It’s more of a compliment to have someone say that they found themselves thinking about the book later, or realized I was making an observation about something. What Burns Within hits on all sorts of things: sex, abuse of authority, trust, religious abuse, equality. In reality, there were things even I didn’t consciously think about in the writing of it that were pointed out to me during my first interview on the book, but at least it gives me plenty of stuff to talk about.
When I think of memorable fictional characters, I find myself thinking about characters who resonate because they’re so real, so believable. The archetypes and stereotypes don’t stick at all. The ones who linger are the ones I’d say wrestle with angels and demons. In the process of the book they’ve become very human to me, although I may not be in the same situation or even have the same values, I can relate to them because of their process of questioning things in their life. Jack Taylor. I’m not an alcoholic, and need never be, to connect to the darkness within him. Others who linger with me? Hagar, from The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.
I was thinking about some of my top reads so far this year:
The Hackman Blues by Ken Bruen
The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby
For The Dogs by Kevin Wignall
Money Shot by Christa Faust
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
A Thousand Bones by PJ Parrish
The Darkness Inside by John Rickards
Who Is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall
We have a university student, a few cops, a former porn star. I asked myself what it was that these books had in common. Ultimately, each had a character that was wrestling with something – guilt, grief, tragedy, loss. Using different styles, very different settings and situations, all of these books spoke about something of what it is to be human. No matter our gender, our race, our religion or lifestyle, we all feel. And often, it is through making people feel that we make them think and we make them connect. Anyone can shamelessly rip off the latest headline (and please note, yes I’ve read books inspired by real cases and not felt they were intrusive or exploitive – undoubtedly some are, and if I feel that way, I toss them, same as any other form of exploitation in fiction that doesn’t work for me) but as authors we breathe life into our characters and we can’t just copy the facts and expect it to all carry over. Facts alone aren’t enough to make people care.
There’s a word for books that have no contribution to what it means to be human: fluff. We’ll all define it differently, but for me, as much as I want to be entertained (after all, you are supposed to tell a story and meandering for hundreds of pages through musings on colours isn’t going to cut it for me) I want to be challenged to think about human behaviour and why we do the things we do. I want to feel I’ve expanded my understanding of people and the choices they make.
When I thought about that episode of Without a Trace and the concept of removed reality, I found myself thinking automatically following someone around, photographing them without their consent and then painting the photograph wasn’t a good idea.
And when people found out, they weren’t too happy.
If people wrote about things in my life? Well, the only person who really knows it all is me, right? So at best all anyone could do is project. And that’s when I start to understand why it can be risky to rely too much on a real situation. I would rather comment on domestic violence than just comment on one specific case. It may be a fine line, but that’s how I draw it.