‘It does happen that way. I mean, you see a fat woman sitting on a bus…And you look at her and you study her shoes and the skirt she’s wearing and her hat and guess her age and whether she’s got a wedding ring on and a few other things. And then you get off the bus. You don’t want ever to see her again, but you’ve got a story in your mind…’
Later in the conversation, Mrs. Oliver points out (and I think, rightly, at least for me) that it would ruin the inspiration if she actually knew the woman she describes. Then the woman she created wouldn’t really be, well, her own creation.
Lots of fiction writers get asked if they base their stories on real people. And of course, there are plenty of authors who write fiction about real people (Hilary Mantel, Martin Edwards and Truman Capote, to name just three). But a lot of writers don’t quite do that.
What happens instead (well, at least for me) is that the writer may see an event, or read or hear about it. Or, perhaps the writer notices a stranger in a grocery store or restaurant or park. Whether it’s a person or event, it sparks the writer’s imagination. Then, the ‘what if questions’ happen: ‘That guy in the baseball cap is so wrapped up in his ‘phone that he’s not paying attention to anything. There could be a murder right behind him and he might not even notice! What would that be like?’ And the story starts to come together, just from that one scene.
Agatha Christie is said to have been inspired for Murder on the Orient Express by a personal experience in which she was caught on a train that was stopped because of snow. Of course, there wasn’t a murder on the train, and it wasn’t for three days, and… But that one incident sparked her imagination. I can’t speak for her, of course, but my guess would be that she didn’t base the characters in that novel on specific people she knew. It’s possible that no-one on the train with her that day resembled any of the characters. Instead, it was the experience that got her thinking.
In October of 1999, two trains collided more or less head-on near Ladbroke Grove, a few miles from Paddington Station. There were 31 deaths and hundreds of injuries, and the incident left permanent scars. Ruth Rendell used that incident as the setting for her novel Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, in which three women’s lives intersect as a result of the crash. Two lose their partners in the wreck; the third meets her fiancé because of it. When these three discover that they’ve all been duped by the same con artist (who was ostensibly killed in the crash) the result leads to some dark places. Rendell didn’t, as far as I know, base those characters directly on people she actually knew who survived the crash. Rather, the event itself sparked the story.
You might say the same sort of thing about Michael Connelly. As he has told the story, he was at a baseball game and got to talking with another person who was there. That man was a lawyer who didn’t have an office in the conventional sense of that word. Rather, he used his car as an office. If you’ve read Connelly’s work and that sounds familiar, it should. Connelly used this person he met as the inspiration for Mickey Haller, whom he introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer. Fans of Haller will know that he uses his car as an office, and travels all over Los Angeles to pursue his cases. The man Connelly met at the baseball game wasn’t named Mickey Haller, and very likely didn’t resemble Haller either in character or appearance. My guess is that instead, Connelly was inspired to imagine a lawyer who works out of his car, and the kind of cases he might encounter.
In discussing the creation of his John Rebus series, Ian Rankin has said that Rebus came to him as a fully-formed fictional character. But he (Rankin) was inspired by the place where he was living at the time he was writing Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus novel. He has said that he wrote the story on a typewriter, sitting at a table by a window. From that window, he could see the tenement opposite, and decided that Rebus would live there – across the way. His living situation inspired the sort of home environment Rebus would have. Fans of this series will also know that Rankin has been inspired for several stories by other places in Edinburgh.
Here’s what Val McDermid says about the inspiration for her novel The Vanishing Point:
‘‘I was travelling with my son when he was about six,’ she says. ‘I’ve got replacement knees so I set off the detectors, and they literally put you in a box. While I was there, my boy was standing by the luggage belt waiting for our bags to come through and I thought that someone could just take him by the hand and walk away with him.’’
She took that moment of fear, with which any parent can identify, and used it to spark the story, even though fortunately, the events of the story didn’t happen in her personal life.
Some writers do use real people, of course. And if you’re interested in the legalities of that, please check out this fascinating post by Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan. That’s a great crime fiction blog, by the way, that deserves a place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.
A lot of writers, though, take those little ideas that come from people they see, events they watch (or learn about) or experiences, and use them to spark fictional stories. Admittedly it can be a bit difficult to explain the process. But when it happens to you, there’s nothing quite like it.
ps It’s not just authors who do this. So do those who write songs. For instance, Billy Joel was, so it is said, inspired to write New York State of Mind by a bus ride he took to West Point. And Allentown was inspired by a comment he heard from a fan.
Wait, what? You wonder why I’d mention a rock star in a crime fiction blog post? But it’s Billy Joel!! And it’s his birthday. So happy birthday, Mr. Joel. And now I’m off to celebrate this important international holiday. Problem with that? Good! ;-)
*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.