Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Can an author go too far when taking something from real life?

When taking a story from real life and applying it to a work of fiction—a crime or detective story, specifically—when can it be said the author is going too far?

If a murder of some sort is essential to your plot (not unheard of in the mystery genre), can it be said that taking a real life crime and dropping it into your story is less an example of writing and more a ripping off a tragedy to make a buck? A form of stenography, if you will, rather than creativity?

I live in Boston and two real life crimes have set me to asking this. You may be familiar with each one.

In April, we had the Boston Marathon Bombings. I’m sure you don’t need the details summed up here.

Perhaps it is because I live in the city where this happened, but I for one could not imagine writing a story where a similar explosion could be used as a “mere” plot device.

Now at some point an explosion may occur in a book of mine, down the writing road. But just dropping a thinly-veiled Marathon Bombing-like device into a novel would seem cruel and exploitive to me. Creatively immoral, if there is such a concept.

There’s also a bit of artistic ego on my part. To date, I’m an author of all of two mysteries but I have enough confidence in myself that I can think of a plot device or two without having to directly copy something out of the day’s news.

Another Boston-area crime: Aaron Hernandez, former tight end for the New England Patriots, is being held without bail in a Massachusetts jail on charges of first degree murder, among other charges. And as of this writing, he is also viewed as a suspect in couple of other murders.

Thus I was sorry to read that Ace Atkins, who has been writing the Spenser novels with the permission of the estate of the late Robert B. Parker, will have the next Spenser book out early next year and that according to a release posted on Facebook, his specific plot will center around a player for the New England Patriots being involved in a crime.

From Facebook:
THE NEXT ACE ATKINS SPENSER: CHEAP SHOT will be about Spenser's investigation of illegal activity around a New England Patriots player. Research started last winter with a trip to Gillette Stadium, long before the Aaron Hernandez arrest. The book will be out next spring.”

While research may well have started before the Hernandez arrest, nonetheless this seems a far more cynical “real life” plot line than Parker himself would have ever used.

Like many authors, Parker took stories that used twists from real life, of course—but would filter it in a way so as to make it blend in seamlessly with the Spenser world; more as backdrop to the plot than the main event itself.

Example: the plot of “Painted Ladies” involved an art theft. But Parker wrote it as unique to Spenser’s story and hardly any rip-off of the Gardner Museum masterpiece thefts.

Perhaps Atkins will also do this here. I like how he’s written the Spenser novels so far. And I’ve liked his other novels. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend “Crossroad Blues.”

And maybe by the time the book is released, he’ll have taken a step or two back from what I’m afraid sounds like a blatant exploitation of the Hernandez murder case.

We’ll see. Sorry to make this into a Sunday sermonette. (Do they still have those anywhere?)

But as an author, when it comes to taking from real life crimes, serious crimes, how far is too far?

There’s a line to be drawn somewhere. Isn’t there? If so, where?
 -- By Joe Nowlan, Author of "Media Blitz" & "The Zyratron Affair"


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I draw a lot from real life crimes--but they aren't recognizable as such. TV does this all the time. Law in Order does it and I recently watched a Castle segment that borrowed from a crime in L.A. Seems to me that the writers aren't using their imaginations enough.

Holli said...

I also draw a lot from true crimes and from cases I've handled as a prosecutor or appellate public defender, but in all honesty there is SO much crime down here in N.O. and so many murders it would be difficult to pin point anything I've written about to a particular one.

My upcoming novel, Chocolate City Justice, takes place during Katrina, and does borrow on some things that actually happened, although I am changing things around. The two big cases against the police for shootings during Katrina have been reversed by the appellate court, mainly for prosecutorial misconduct, and our mayor at the time, Ray Nagin, was recently indicated. It's rich fodder for me. The title of the book is even taken from a speech Nagin gave on MLK day, about how N.O. would be a chocolate city at the end of the day.

I think enough time has gone by that it isn't sensationalism to borrow some of the true events and change them up a bit for the novel. Also, even though police misconduct and the criminal behavior of the residents played a part in some of the tragedy, the real culprit was mother nature, and she can't sue me if I write bad things about her.

John M. Wills said...

All fiction is drawn from real life, and some real life is drawn from fiction.

Mary Montague Sikes said...

While I'll draw from things that actually happened to me, I've never used a real crime as part of my books. Real life can be too horrific to repeat in a book--especially one with happy endings.

Mary Montague Sikes