That’s ME in Your Book, isn’t it?

Today's Guest Blogger, Earl Smith

Earl Smith, our guest today, talks about the dangers of setting your story in a small Maine town when you LIVE in a small Maine town.

Any number of fiction writers could have warned me, but I never thought to ask. When writing about a small town that resembles your own, be prepared to have neighbors not only claim the locations of your story but also insist that they are in it.

I shouldn’t have been all that surprised.  It is quite normal to associate fictional characters with real people. Everybody does it. Indeed, I have met Lea Wait’s Maggie Summer. She is the same woman who sells me etchings when I’ve saved the money. And Kate Flora’s Thea Kozak? I just know I met her once, during the investigation of a murder on the Colby campus. As for Gerry Boyle’s Jack McMorrow? Well of course that’s me, forty years ago as an intrepid reporter for the Waterville Sentinel

For any reader, a little bit of this business of assigning real names to made up places and characters makes for fine and cozy reading, but in the case of my first novel, The Dam Committee, the entire village of Belgrade Lakes, Maine, has gone nuts making a game of it. Sure, it’s winter and there’s little else to do, but still and all, it is not healthy.

I’ve figured out what I did wrong. I did not work hard enough at disguise. In fact, I did the opposite. It wasn’t necessary to make the name of my fictitious town of Belfry sound so much like Belgrade. Nor did Belfry need a Sunrise Grill when Belgrade already has a Sunset Grille. And, while I stoutly claim the difference is like night and day, I should not have called the Belfry General Store “Knights” when the counterpart Belgrade establishment is “Days.”  There was just no need. No need at all.

As for the characters, I assure you (and God, and any lawyers) they are entirely fabricated, taken from tiny bits and pieces of people from here and there. As replicas of any actual people, they are quite impure. It plainly says so in the books’ disclaimer:  “This is a work of fiction.  The people, places and events are all made up. Anyone who thinks otherwise, even for a minute, needs to lighten up.

Belgrade Church

But they won’t lighten up. They’re having too much fun. Before the locals had even read the book, they were using the previews to tie characters to real people in town, and while the story has fewer than a dozen significant characters, within a month of publication I ran into at least three times that number who either claim credit for an appearance or tell me the real names of the people I have invented. Good Lord, I don’t even know some of these people.

While I flatly deny these associations, the local Belgrade postmaster, Buzz, is adamant that he’s the Belfry postmaster, Hummer, and is presently displaying his displeasure by taking even longer than usual to put up my mail. My daughter thinks she’s been cast as the deputy sheriff, and fusses that I made her too fat. A Colby colleague, who believes he’s the Mafia killer, is trying to convince his colleagues in the economics department that Brad Pitt should play his role in the movie. Trust me, he’s not that good looking.

It gets worse. These neighbors of mine who insist on making character assignments have begun to complain about my writing imperfections.  “You almost got Nibber cold,” one of them said to me at the post office the other day. “Trouble is, he’s not as sloppy as you made him, and no where near tall enough.”  For the love of Pete, Nibber’s at least a dozen people. I didn’t bother to ask who he thought Nibber really was.  I didn’t dare.

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. I’ve sold more books in town than there are people. Most everyone has bought several copies, one or two for themselves and the rest, I suspect, to put away to sell at inflated prices to unsuspecting flatlanders in the summer. Even so, I’ve learned a lesson. If I find courage to write a sequel, I will have the dam collapse in the first chapter, flood Belfry off the map, name the new town Plainville, and make all the characters be robots wearing masks.

In the meantime, I continue to tell my neighbors to read the book twice, first to settle their minds on their own locations and cast of characters, and then again to enjoy the dam thing.

The Dam Committee    North Country Press


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5 Responses to That’s ME in Your Book, isn’t it?

  1. I just wanted to congratulate you on your release, Earl! What a milestone to teach…and if everyone thinks you wrote about them, hey, they’ll just be prouder to spread the word about your book!!

  2. Sarah Graves says:

    Congratulations, Earl. Sounds as if your neighbors are enjoying their star turn, at any rate.

  3. John Clark says:

    Great column! One reason I write fantasy and have most of it set off-world is because (save for an occasional outraged alien), it’s wicked hard to claim you’re a poorly portrayed goople from planet Mongo. I do agree that it’s next to impossible to avoid blending visual and mental DNA of people you know when writing. I have two teen characters in my second book who are definitely composites of people I treated when I was in the mental health field.

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Hi, Earl! (And Maggie probably has sold you etchings!) I know some antique dealers I know are alqays trying to figure out “who those people really are!” in my Shadows Antique print Mysteries, and people in Maine had searched (some successfully – sometimes not) for restaurants and stores) mentioned in my books set in the mid-coast. And I’m used to everyone assuming that, of course, I’m really Maggie. But the one who gets it the worst is my husband, who actually has been called “Will” (Maggie’s significant other is Will, for anyone who hasn’t read the series) at a number of my signings. He’s good about it. But I know there are moments ….!
    The good news? All those people will buy your books .. just to see if they ARE in there!

  5. I think it was crime writer and raconteuse Marcia Talley who told me her acquaintances always recognized themselves in nice characters (even though those characters were in no way based upon anyone living) and saw someone else in the villain, even if the bad guy had been modeled upon him or her!

    Almost every non-writer will ask, “Are your characters based on real people?” No writer does. I wonder what that says?

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