Today's guest blogger shares about the pitfalls of basing characters on people you know in real life. Her blog is a sneak peek at the topic she'll be discussing during a Bouchercon panel (Word Nerd is checking her schedule now so she doesn't miss that one...) Please welcome Hank Phillippi Ryan.
STRANGER THAN TRUTH by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My mother is so mad at me. She’s in the midst of reading FACE TIME, the second Charlotte McNally Mystery.
I expected Mom to like it. She was delighted when PRIME TIME won the Agatha, and delighted that AIR TIME is already hitting best-seller lists. And she’s my mom, after all. So I didn’t expect criticism. But Mom, after reading the first ten pages or so, told me she was “unhappy.” You have to imagine the "Mom" tone. Perhaps, you've heard it. Maybe you've used it a time or two yourself.
To be sure: Mom is terrific. She’s almost 80, and is absolutely beautiful. An artist, a reader, a wonderful intellect. (She doesn’t have a computer, so she’s not reading this.) I’m her oldest daughter, and any psychologist will tell you that can cause some friction.
So anyway. Why is Mom mad? She thinks I’ve “used her for art.”
It’s true: Charlie McNally’s mother is a bit—persnickety. She’s opinionated. She thinks, for instance, that Charlotte should give up her successful 20-year TV reporting career to marry some tycoon. No matter that Charlie’s happy with her personal life (pretty happy, at least, for a 46-year-old single woman who is married to her job) and with her professional life (pretty happy, at least, especially since she’s going undercover to investigate a truly diabolical scheme).
“Mom” also thinks Charlotte might want to join her at the plastic surgeon for some cosmetic face time.
Now Mrs. McNally is not, I repeat, not, my mother. But in these days of controversy over whether books purported to be memoirs are actually true—I’m fighting to convince her that my book is truly fiction.
It’s ALL MADE UP, I tell her. Yes, Charlie has a Mom, and I have a Mom. But I’m not Charlie and she’s not you. No one will think you had cosmetic surgery.
Silence on the other end of the phone.
“Of course they will, dear,” she finally says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
And that’s why my Bouchercon panel “You Talking About ME?” (check local listings for time and station!) is going to be such a treat. It’s all about the pitfalls of using real life in your books—and how to balance fact and fiction. You think CJ Lyons MD uses the personas of any doctors she knows? That incredible athlete Twist Phelan just ignores her true-life competitors? Does Ken Isaacson (attorney at law) just pull his fictional lawyers out of thin air? (Molly MacRae will attempt to “moderate” us…good luck with that.)
And hey--if you’re a reader, do you assume fictional characters are real people just put on paper?
And as it turns out—as Mom will find out if she’ll just read the rest of the book—it’s not only a mystery but a love story between mothers and daughters. One reviewer told me she downright cried at the final scene. (Which is odd, you have to admit, in a murder mystery.)
Yes, as authors we take elements of reality. Then we polish, and tweak, and exaggerate, and accessorize. But the fun is making up something completely new. And it’s ALL MADE UP.
Investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is currently on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate, where she's broken big stories for the past 22 years. Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. Her first mysteries, Prime Time (which won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel) and Face Time (Book Sense Notable Book), were best sellers. They were both re-issued this summer from MIRA Books. The newest in the series is Air Time (MIRA Sept. 2009) (Sue Grafton says: "Sassy, fast-paced and appealing. This is first-class entertainment.") Drive Time is scheduled for February 2010 from MIRA. Her website is http://www.hankphillippiryan.com/