Read about it in the newspapers or see it on TV news and a few weeks later you’re watching a fictionalized account on TV. The weekly Law & Order show is probably the best example of that approach.
I read the New York Times every day and occasionally watch TV news. My mysteries and my romances are influenced by what I read and see, not just the scandalous headline stories but by everyday events and human interest articles. As you may know, I’m a pantser and I do no advance planning or plotting before starting to write. So even though I may have a particular news story in mind when I type the first words of a novel or a short story, the reality is that my subconscious is in charge and that news story is just the jumping off point. Like most authors I devote months and, in some cases, years, plotting and writing a novel. Because of my pantser process, the extended writing time and the more complex exploration possible in the hundreds of pages of a novel, my books are more complex than a forty-five-minute TV show. And by the time I write The End, the book I’ve written may have little or nothing to do with the story that influenced it.
News stories are out in the public domain and, thus, grist for the mill. But what about stories, events, people, etc. in the author’s life? In my life? I, like many authors, pull from my experience and, as with news stories, my imagination uses them as a springboard to fit the story I am writing. But…
Are Some things too Personal?
Years ago, I was watching the news and one of the stories was about a thirty-five-year-old man who stabbed his thirty-year-old wife and their three daughters– four months, four and five years old—to death in their sleep. I was horrified and overwhelmed with sadness. But I turned off the news and forgot it. Until my mother called later that night. That young woman was my godchild, Linda. I’d lost touch with her and didn’t recognize her married name. There was no trial and the murder quickly dropped out of the news. In the many years since that night, I occasionally thought about writing Linda’s story, but I never did. And her mom never mentioned her or the murder. Interestingly, right before the Covid lockdown I had lunch with her mom, who has since died, and she asked me to write the story. I said I would think about it but the idea of imagining Linda dealing with the horror of that night is chilling. I doubt I’ll ever do it.
And more recently, Sherry and I cleaned out the locker we used to offload stuff from our apartment and came across a scrapbook containing what appears to be every handwritten letter and card her dad sent to her mom while he served in World War II. What a treasure trove. Original documentation, one man’s view of an historical time. I thought about using the letters as a basis for a novel. But. My in-laws married just before he shipped overseas. She was nineteen and he twenty-one. The letters were love letters, romantic and poetic. Hearing the first two read aloud felt like an invasion of their privacy. I see their faces. I hear their voices. I can’t imagine reading hundreds of intimate letters and having the distance to write their story or to create a fictionalized version of them.
Yes. For me, some things are too personal. What about you, could you write intimate stories about people you know?
In addition to publishing multiple mystery and romance short stories in various anthologies, Catherine has authored four romances novels. Her latest book, The Disappearance of Lindy James, was awarded a GOLDIE for Best General Fiction.
People often tell me secrets and I really and truly try to keep them, but sometimes they just eat away at me because they are such good story material. Often it will be some detail that stands out. I don’t consciously use that info, but who knows what my unconscious is doing?
Susan, I get that the unconscious does what it does and I adore it. It’s one of the things that makes writing without an outline or a plan so exciting. The thing I am unable to do is let my mind, my subconscious, dwell on the thoughts, feelings and experiences of people I know.