Paul Doiron here—
In the novel I’m currently working on I had a character who was a waitress at an unusual eatery. OK, she was a stripper at a topless donut shop. When I sent in the first draft of my book, my editor replied with shock and disbelief. He couldn’t buy such an establishment was real, let alone a fixture of the Maine countryside.
Perhaps you, too, find the idea improbable. To all the doubters, I offer these headlines from the past week’s Bangor Daily News:
Who torched topless coffee shop? Jurors to decide as trial begins
Wife says defendant threatened to burn down topless coffee shop
In my fictional version, there wasn’t even an angry boyfriend driven to arson over sexual jealousy! There was just a woman who took her blouse off to serve crullers. My story was banal by comparison.
We’ve all heard the old saw: truth is stranger than fiction. As a writer, the episode of the topless donut shop has taught me a corollary principle: fiction cannot be as strange as truth. Readers of most crime novels expect their stories to be more or less believable. They’re willing to suspend their disbelief when it comes to the astronomically high rate of homicides in St. Mary-Mead, but only if they trust that Agatha Christie is playing fair with them. The rules of the game are extremely important in the mystery genre; they must be announced at the outset and followed assiduously. Woe to the careless writer who breaks them.
So, as much as I’d love to send a packet of clippings from the BDN to my editor’s office in the Flat Iron Building, I am forced to admit he has a valid point. My novels work because of their verisimilitude. If the characters and settings don’t feel real to the reader, the stories fall apart. Truth be damned.
Upon deep reflection, therefore, I have decided that my fictional waitress should keep her top on for the sake of all involved. Judging by what happened at the Grand View, it’s probably just as well.
PS: The best commentary I’ve read on this immensely enjoyable newspaper series comes, as usual, from Twitter:
Topless coffee shop news is to BDN what Cain harassment is to Politico#MaineNews bangordailynews.com/2011/12/15/new…
— jessi leigh (@JessiLeigh) December 16, 2011
Hey, Paul. Several years back there was a guy in New Hampshire who did the same thing.
Paul…years ago, critiquing a novel, I told the writer that readers would find her death scene and the way investigators handled it improbable and she’d lose credibility for the rest of her book. Turned out that scene was based on something that really happened. But as we both know, that doesn’t matter. Readers have a certain set of expectations about how crime scene investigation takes place. It’s true for a lot of the things that happen in fiction. Our poor cops have to do better than those out here in the real world.
My favorite true story that no one would believe comes from the New York Times . . . in 1888! There was a runaway camel (yes, camel) on Broadway one night, just as the theaters were letting out. The story in the NYT is written in that wonderful 19th century style with lots of big words and no political correctness whatsoever and I wanted to have my sleuth, a journalist who reviews plays, encounter the “rampaging beast” in what later became the first mystery in the Diana Spaulding series (w/a Kathy Lynn Emerson). You guessed it. The universal response was that no one would ever believe it! I did actually sneak some of the details into the final version of the novel, but only by using them in a scene where characters are sharing their favorite stories.
I LOVE the Topless donut shop story, a story where a man has combined his passions.
The smallest bit of googling determines that
It’s a delightful romp
–women and MEN waited on customers topless and eighty year-old women gathered
–the shop burned down just after the owner talked to town committee members about making it a full on strip club (thus creating other suspect pools and motives)
–and this is my favorite sentence “Crabtree, his twin daughters, their boyfriends and their 4-month-old sons were living in a section of the coffee shop that had once been a motel….” Does this mean each of the twins has a son exactly the same age (in months)? Wow. Fantastic.
On the other hand, at the trial, there’s another much darker story about multiple arsons and spousal abuse.
So, Paul, the Topless Donut shop may not belong in your story, but it belongs in somebody’s story, or maybe multiple sombodies very different stories.
Maine struck as sweet, and scenic, and kind of rock ribbed conservative. I guess I’m wrong. I loved the camel story! Happy Holdays to all.
Great post, and just what I needed to read, today, too. Thanks, Paul.