I lied. Mr. Holmes is pure fiction, but the movie captured the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre so well, and Ian McKellen portrayed the role so well, I expected to read “based on a true story” before the credits.
I enjoy movies based on historical events. I enjoy documentaries. I enjoy reading some biographies of influential people; e.g., Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein. I enjoy nonfiction, particularly “popular histories," such as anything by Erik Larson (Isaac’s Storm, The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, Dead Wake).
Whenever I see a movie based on a true story, I later look up the actual events and see how they differ or coincide with the movie, how much has been fictionalized for dramatic impact, which characters were portrayed accurately and which were composites.
I am more forgiving of bending reality in movies than I am in books. Lives need to be compressed to fit into a two-hour presentation, personalities can’t be explored in detail as they can in a 500-page book, historical events need to be altered to fit a framework, people essential to the story are combined into composites so the number of characters in the movie isn’t overwhelming.
I have never tried to write historical fiction – nor do I read it much – because it is a hybrid of historical precision with purely imaginary characters. I would love to write a book about Wyatt Earp’s Jewish wife, for example, but I am not an historian and am concerned that I won’t place their lives together realistically into the historical times in which they lived. And I am never sure if the writer of an historical fiction novel has done so. I trust that anyone writing biography, history, or other nonfiction has done extensive research. But a bibliography and reference list is not appended at the end of most fictional works. Unless it’s a period of time I’m familiar with, I’ve no idea how much happened and how much is fantasy.Yet, when I am asked where I get my ideas from, if I ever use current events or “real” stories, I answer yes.
The essence of writing fiction, to me, is to answer the questions “what if” and “why.” In the acknowledgements of my first mystery Chanukah Guilt, I noted, “…this book is a work of fiction….[But] many years ago, some artifacts were stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; they were later spotted in the window of an antique store. But everything else is pure fabrication.” What I wondered was why anyone would steal such items and then sell them to an antique store. Was it a college prank or fraternity dare? Was it for profit? And so the germ of the story was planted in my mind, and the actual theft became the “McGuffin” on which the plot depended.
In the second book Unleavened Dead, a couple is found dead in their house from carbon monoxide poisoning. The builder had installed the gas dryer vent improperly. Several years ago, the owners of townhouses in a nearby community sued the builder, saying the gas dryer vents were improperly installed, causing possible buildups of carbon monoxide in their homes. Fortunately, there were no injuries reported. But I asked, “what if…?” and took off from there.
Not exactly “torn from the headlines,” but real life events do influence my fiction. I wonder if (that phrase again) I should start describing the books as “inspired by real events.” After all, the events were real and I was inspired.
Rabbi Ilene Schneider is the award-winning author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen mysteries, Chanukah Guilt and Unleavened Dead; the 3rd, a work-in-progress, is titled Yom Killer. She also wrote the best-selling nonfiction Talk Dirty Yiddish: Beyond Drek.