Sunday, January 10, 2016


What do Spotlight, Black Mass, Trumbo, The Suffragette, Woman in Gold, Freeheld, and Mr. Holmes have in common? They are all movies I have seen in the past few months, all are ones I liked, and all were based on true stories or inspired by true events.
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.













Amy Bennett said...

Fiction contains more truth than most people think! Great post!

Doug Seaver said...

Beyond inspiration, the telling detail from a real life event or the mention of a well-known figure is an essential literary tool for those of us who write ‘realistic’ fiction. Mention JFK and, depending upon the context, either the promise of Camelot or the tragedy of his assignation is immediately brought to mind for those of us of a certain generation.

Nancy LiPetri said...

Enjoyed this post! I think real life detail pulls a reader into a fiction tale, making it more engaging, like actual places, actual products in use, real news stories of the time...actual Jewish customs :)

Sharon Ervin said...

One of my favorite descriptions of the difference between fiction and non fiction is that fiction requires some element of believability where non fiction does not.

JL Greger said...

I enjoyed Mr. Holmes too. It seemed more real than any other sherlock Homes adventure. Also sadder.

This blog sort of echoes a couple of points I made in the blog I wrote for you a couple of weeks ago. Science and historical facts give fiction "body" make it seem more worthwhile as well as more realistic.
JL Greger, author of I SAW YOU IN BEIRUT, a thriller with science and travel tidbits

Carolyn Niethammer said...

In my latest historical fiction, The Piano Player, I did extensive historical research, but in the end, every little detail wasn't exactly true. But what I was aiming for, as I think most historical fiction writers are, is giving a feeling of being in that time. Of course to be absolutely real, we'd have to go into details that most readers don't want. The stench of outhouses, the flies and lice, the piles of horse manure in the streets, the smell of bodies washed infrequently, the filthy clothing because washing was so time consuming and lack of dry cleaning facilities. D.H. Lawrence did write how his coalminer father came home and washed only above the waist. Left the rest to the imagination. Since there are no time machines, we rely on fiction writers to take us back.

Billie Johnson said...

Excellent post and excellent comments!!

badge # 979 said...

I often think about how writing and making a movie differ, and then I try to make my writing prompt a reader's imagination to visualize the character and action with the same clarity. Thanks for your insightful blog.