Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Stop Writing About Me

I write the Murder-by-Month mysteries set in the real town of Battle Lake, Minnesota. I was living in Battle Lake when I started May Day, the first in the series. The town was an inspiration to me, both an attractant and a repellent in a way that only a small community can be. I wanted to vent about the gossip, praise the sense of community, explore the humor, mine what caused me and so many other small town refugees to end up right back where we started, or close enough.

I might be dumb, but I'm not stupid. All the locations where people are murdered are fictional. All the real locations I describe in only positive terms. Almost all the characters are fictional, amalgamations of thoughts, experience, and imagination. The rare occasions I use a real person's name in the book, it's by request, and they're never the bad (or dead) guy.

And so tell me why, whenever I do a signing in or around Battle Lake, I have so many people convinced that I've written about them, or their friend, or their relative?

Have we met? I'll ask.

No, they'll say. But you must have heard about me because there I am, the friend of the killer, all the way through the book.

Do you have the same name as the friend of the killer? I'll ask.


Look like them?


Same age?

No, but she's married to the town accountant and so am I. And I want to know who told you he's been cheating on me.

Yikes. I've heard some version of this story at least five times. It's flattery, my friends tell me. You've written such archetypal small town characters that people actually feel they know them. But I can't quite get there because I hate that someone feels like my books expose them, no matter how unfounded that feeling is.

Giving the town a fictional name would have lessened that reaction, certainly, but I never even considered the idea. Battle Lake is a magical place, and I knew the books had to be set there. It wouldn't be as good of a series if they weren't. And so, I write on, certain that even if I create a character who is a one-legged, black-eyed, Albanian, red-haired National Geographic photographer, at my next Battle Lake signing, someone with red hair will be there asking why I put them in my book.

Is this a problem? What causes it? Anyone else experience it?


Keith Raffel said...

Yup. Here's one example. A friend had barely entered the front door of our house when she declaimed, "You didn't tell me I was in the book." I pointed out the differences between the character she'd decided was really her and the real her, but it didn't help. So finally I asked if she wanted the character to be based on her. She said, "Yes" and I said, "Fine."

Lisa Bork said...

Too funny. My book hasn't been out that long, but two people did ask if one character was supposed to be so and so. Not intentionally.

Jess Lourey said...

Phew. It's a relief to know that I'm not the only one. But what causes this in people? I've got lots of friends who are writers and never once considered that one of them has put me in their book.

Declaimed--thanks for the new word, Keith!

G.M. Malliet said...

I haven't had this reaction (that I know of - perhaps people are out there fuming in silence). But I have to tell you, Jennifer Weiner once wrote a description of someone that was so spot-on a description of someone I know, I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. The physical description, right down to the age and hair color/style, was spot on. More to the point, the total, breath-taking self-absorption was described to perfection, and to hilarious effect. Weiner absolutely *nailed* this character.

Now, has Jennifer ever met this real person of mine? No way. Impossible. So I guess this real person is just a "type," but I found the coincidence eerie, as well as hugely entertaining.

Jess Lourey said...

Ha! That's awesome, Gin. Don't suppose you lent a copy of the book to this person? Barb d'Amato said once at a conference talking about using real people as inspiration for our characters: "the more accurately you describe an asshole, the less they'll recognize themself."

G.M. Malliet said...

Big LOL here, Jess.

No, I did not lend this person the book. It would never be returned.

Cricket McRae said...

Jess, only my family thinks they know who my characters really are. They're sure they know that character is really so-and-so, which inevitably baffles me because I don't see so-and-so like that at all. In my upcoming release my protag is visiting her parents. Who knows what I'll hear about that...

Jess Lourey said...

It is the oddest situation, isn't it, Cricket? It's so hard to explain the ether that we create whole characters from. And the truth of it is that real people are too unpredictable and unbelievable to make good fictional characters.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Yes. I come across this in Anderson, SC, my hometown. And the darned thing is that sometimes they're right.... ;)

Jess Lourey said...

Ha! Don't encourage them, Elizabeth. :)