Okay, mystery fans, raise your hands if you’ve seen that meme of a hot beverage mug that says, “Please do not annoy the writer. She may put you in a book and kill you.”
Yep, that’s just about all of you. And you thought the quote was clever and adorable, right? Of course you did. Maybe you bought the very same mug for a favorite writer friend (or even for yourself). But here’s something you might not have realized: The Warning is Real.
Oh, sure, we’re all read that important disclaimer at the front of nearly every book. Something along the lines of, “This is a work of total fiction and the author swears any resemblance to any real person alive or dead is a huge and highly unintentional coincidence.”
It goes without saying that no author wants to be sued for libel, and as a former in-house editor I know how carefully publishers’ legal teams vet manuscripts in question before publication. But sometimes there can be a very fine line between reality and fiction. Truman Capote once said that “All literature is gossip.” And as Harper Lee’s childhood friend, he himself was the character model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Plenty of bestselling authors, from Lewis Carroll to Charles Dickens to Stephen King, have created characters based on people they knew. Severus Snape from the Harry Potter novels was inspired by J.K. Rowling’s chemistry teacher. Apparently he was a bit puzzled about that first, because he didn’t think he was that strict, but he came around.
I’ve also heard a theory that each character an author creates contains at least a small part of the author herself. Hmm. I’ll need to think some more about that idea. If it’s true, it might make things a little confusing—and, in the cases of a few of my crazier characters, I’m not sure it’s entirely flattering.
So have I imagined characters in The Ladies Smythe & Westin Mysteries based on people I’ve known or situations I’ve experienced in real life? Oh, you bet, heh heh. I’ve been careful, though, to place them in a fictional town and disguise their identities by Frankenstein-ing traits and changing names to protect the innocent (and guilty). Really, there are never-ending sources of material out there.
Now back to that quote on the coffee mug…Could you be in danger of becoming a mystery writer’s next victim? I’d say the chances are good. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Readers, do ever feel you’re being…watched? And writers, have you ever been guilty of this creative crime? Let us know in the comments below!