Translating true events we know something about into a terrific story shouldn’t be hard, right? All the essentials are in hand — what happens plus the characters, the scene, and the plot. In practice, it is much more challenging than you’d imagine.
So why is this? And, since real events do motivate some mystery/crime writers, how do we avoid the expected pitfalls? Here are some ideas and suggestions:
1. Writers must remove themselves from the story and keep in mind that they are telling the story, not the center of the story. Otherwise, what happens is based on a writer’s own biased point of view. In other words, writer you aren’t the hero.
2. Figure out who/what is absolutely essential to your story so you “get it right” story-wise and not necessarily history-wise. Again, readers look for a good story. That means you might need to exaggerate or invent emotions, add scenes, change dates, and include remarkable characters.
3. Give your characters room to roam – again, add scenes and expand the terrain.
4. Protect the privacy of real characters – change their names, physical appearance, histories, and where they live.
The Shark, The Girl & The Sea, number five in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi series, will be published this summer. Since the story was motivated by an actual shark fatality not far from my home, I faced each of these challenges and continue to keep them in mind when I discuss the book. For example, in my story:
— The person who suffers a fatal shark attack bears no resemblance to the actual victim except for their gender.
— Each of my books has a strong environmental focus, and in this story that emphasis is great white sharks themselves, as opposed to the victim. For example, I expose human practices such as shark finning (for shark fin soup) which have made sharks an endangered species worthy of our protection. Also, scene’s such as shark cage diving in Mexico help readers appreciate that sharks are extraordinary, beautiful animals. In this way, I’ve “expanded the terrain”.
— The growing relationship between Mara and shark expert Brady MacFarlane occupies much of the story’s emotional landscape. Again, this is “expanded terrain.”
A little about three well-known crime novels based on actual events:
• The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy: A noir set in post WWII Hollywood, the story explores the murder investigation of Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth ‘Betty” Short, including how nobody walks away undamaged from a murder.
• Psycho by Robert Bloch: The author lived very near Ed Gein, the butcher of Plainfield, Wisconsin, who was arrested for the murder of two women in 1957. Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film certainly made Gein the most famous semi-fictional serial killer of our time.
• The Executioner’s Song: Norman Mailer depicts events leading to the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah. Gilmore, who murdered two men in separate robberies, was tried, convicted, and eventually executed by the method he chose: firing squad. In an interview, Mailer pointed to the key theme in the story: “we have profound choices to make in life, and one of them may be the deep and terrible choice most of us avoid between dying now and ‘saving one’s soul”. Author Joan Didion remarked that “no one but Mailer could have dared this book”.