The Chicks are delighted to bring you four wonderful guest authors today: please welcome Mally Becker, Liz Milliron, Kerry Peresta, and C.L. Tolbert from Level Best Books!
Hello Chicks! It is fabulous to be here. We’re having a lot of fun hanging out together and it is so exciting we get to share our books with you. When we got together, we started thinking about what our books had in common. Well, we all write crime fiction, in one form or another. And what is one of the most important things when solving a mystery? Truth and lies.
Of course, our sleuths want to find the truths and expose the lies. But what about us as authors? What are the truths—and lies—that make the story?
There’s a pretty common question authors get: have you ever based a character on a real person and did that person recognize themselves? Aunt Jane is convinced she’s the matriarch of the family. Your best friend just knows the sidekick is based on her. And your brother is absolutely certain that the annoying neighbor is based on the next-door neighbor you had as kids.
But is any of this true?
Mally Becker: Real life characters and fictional ones mingle in my historical mystery, The Turncoat’s Widow, which tells the story of General Washington’s most reluctant spy, a young widow who uncovers a plot that threaten the new nation.
Washington has a featured role in the story, of course. So do Alexander Hamilton, Martha Washington, and other founding heroes and villains. So did I hew closely to the record or play fast and loose with history?
In my story, Washington recruits Becca to spy for him. One historian told me that there’s no record Washington personally involved women in his spy rings. However, it’s possible, he said, since we don’t really know what happened behind closed doors. General Washington was America’s first spymaster. That’s a fact. And there were female spies during the Revolution. That’s factual, too.
I felt much more freedom, though, writing about less well-known historical figures. I shaped their words and actions by “borrowing” traits from people I love.
Don’t tell my husband, but he’s the model for one of my favorite characters, the enigmatic John Mason. Mason was, in fact, the head of an 18th century gang of thieves that roamed the western shore of the Hudson River during the American Revolution. With little more than that in the historical record, I gave Mason my husband’s energy, intensity, and joy. And both Mason and “my” Bob are good at keeping secrets.
I thought it was an appropriate “match”—Mr. Mason and my husband—since a high school teacher once told Bob that she thought he’d grow up to be a criminal. It tickled me to finally prove her right, if only in the pages of The Turncoat’s Widow.
Did my husband recognize himself when he read my story? Of course not!
Liz Milliron: It’s no secret that Betty Ahern in the Homefront Mysteries is inspired by my grandmother. She has some of Grandma’s traits—but Betty is definitely not my grandmother and none of my family, especially her son (my dad), would make the mistake of saying so. As far as I know, Grandma never wanted to be a private detective and she certainly wasn’t involved in as many murders as Betty. Unfortunate, she died in 2001, so she’ll never meet her fictional self.
However, I did base a character on a real person once. It was a guy on my local community pool board of directors who really irritated me. I changed up his age, his appearance, and some mannerisms, but the character’s attitude, including how he acted toward other people, was completely this guy. Needless to say, since he made me mad, I killed him. But the real-life guy wasn’t a reader, so I don’t think he ever knew that I took my fictional revenge for his bad behavior.
Kerry Peresta: The afternoon sun dropped below the horizon, and the first star beamed at me from a purplish sky. I closed my eyes and made a wish—a wish that I wouldn’t get slapped with a lawsuit for libel.
I still remember that moment of terror. As a novice writer, one of my first books was an exercise in what not to do as an author. Though readers loved the book, it had more than its fair share of typos, and—much to my dismay—held a more serious issue I didn’t know about until after it was published. The antagonist I’d painted so realistically was recognizable. My first clue was a call from a former colleague.
“So, wow,” she said, “I didn’t realize he was that bad.”
My brow furrowed. I asked her to explain. She laughed as she continued. “Well, yeah, you changed the appearance, the name, the height. But that’s it. If you worked with the guy, you knew who it was. Oh, and you made him a drug addict!” More laughter. I felt my cheeks growing warm from humiliation, or possibly, fear. I wasn’t sure.
After we ended the call, I talked to a more experienced author, who told me, duh, who doesn’t know that an author can get sued for libel? If the person can prove that the characterization cost him money, or ruined his reputation, it can be a big problem. He shrugged, and asked me if I read my contract, because, he explained, it includes a clause that denounces any responsibility for such things. That is why, he continued, authors usually set up an LLC, and why in the initial pages of any work of fiction they explain that it is indeed… a work of fiction.
Every writing conference I’ve ever attended emphasizes the credo: “write what you know.” Obviously, I’d taken the advice too seriously. Someone needs to tell these people to quantify this golden nugget of writerly wisdom with caution. Taking the truth too far in shaping a character is not in the author’s best interests. So now, I throw a bunch of fictitious attributes at the bad guys along with those that are truthful. Just in case!
C.L. Tolbert: None of the characters in The Redemption are based entirely on any one person. But several characters in the book are an amalgamation of people I know, or people I have met over the years.
The protagonist, Louis, is based in part on a young man I represented in a case in New Orleans. He was only fifteen when I met him and had been arrested for the murder of a thirty-eight year old man. I’ll call this young man “Malcom.” He inspired the character of Louis, in part, but only because a few of the facts of his case were similar.
Malcom didn’t express himself well and had a flat affect. Similarly, when we first meet Louis, he seems distant. But as he grows to trust Emma, he gradually becomes more animated and expressive. The actual young man, Malcom, never warmed up to me. He remained flat, cold, and completely uncommunicative during my representation of him. I fleshed out Louis’s personality with sensitivity, and artistic talent, and made Louis far more expressive than Malcom. I don’t believe Malcolm would recognize himself in Louis since they are so dissimilar, and since the story line has been changed substantially from Malcom’s case.
I’ve also been asked if I’m Emma, the main character in The Redemption and in the Thornton Mystery Series. Emma is an attorney, and a single mother, as I’ve been most of my life. But, as with Malcom, that is where the similarities end. Emma is far more of a risk taker than I have ever been. I’m a rule follower, and, I hate to admit it, a tinge more neurotic than Emma. I believe I may also be guilty of living vicariously through Emma. She says things and does things I’d never do. She pushes boundaries, questions rules, and even tells her superiors off occasionally. She has more adventures, too. Of course, she gets in much more trouble, as well. But that’s what makes it fun.
Emma is an enjoyable character to write (and live through.) But, just like Louis, she’s a character contrived, in part from the personality characteristics of a couple of people I know very well, and, partially, from pure imagination.
Mally Becker became fascinated with the American Revolution when she peeked into the past as a volunteer at the Morristown National Historical Park, where George Washington and the Continental army spent two winters. A former attorney, advocate for foster children, and freelance writer, Becker and her husband live in Warren, NJ, where they raised their son. The Turncoat’s Widow, featuring Becca Parcell, is her first novel. mallybecker.com
Liz Milliron is the author of The Laurel Highlands Mysteries series, set in the scenic Laurel Highlands of Southwestern Pennsylvania, and The Homefront Mysteries, set in Buffalo, NY during the early years of World War II. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Pennwriters, and International Thriller Writers. A recent empty-nester, Liz lives outside Pittsburgh with her husband and a retired-racer greyhound. lizmilliron.com
Kerry Peresta’s publishing credits include a popular newspaper and e-zine humor column, “The Lighter Side,” (2009—2011); The Hunting, women’s fiction/suspense, Pen-L Publishing, 2013; and The Deadening, Book One in the Olivia Callahan Suspense Series. Recently, she worked as editor and contributor for Island Communications, a local publishing house. Her magazine articles have been published in Local Life Magazine,The Bluffton Breeze, Lady Lowcountry, and Island Events Magazine. Before starting to write full time, she spent twenty-five years in advertising as an account manager, creative director, and copywriter. She is past chapter president of the Maryland Writers’ Association and a current member and presenter of Hilton Head Island Writers’ Network, and the Sisters in Crime organization. Kerry is the mother of four adult children. She and her husband moved to Hilton Head Island, SC in 2015. kerryperesta.net
In 2010 Cynthia Tolbert won the Georgia Bar Journal’s fiction contest for the short story version of Out From Silence. Cynthia developed that story into the first full-length novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, which was published by Level Best Books in December of 2019. Her second book in this same series, entitled The Redemption, which is set in New Orleans, will be released in February of 2021. Both books are legal procedurals, but they turn on complex characters, sympathetic suspects, and an attorney determined to find the truth. Adam, the protagonist in the first book, Out From Silence, is deaf, and accused of killing his girlfriend. Louis, the protagonist in The Redemption, is only sixteen, and accused of killing two men. Their struggles to face their fear and to help their attorney prepare their defense is their greatest challenge. Cynthia has a Master’s in Special Education and taught children with learning disabilities before moving on to law school. She spent most of her legal career working as defense counsel to large corporations and traveled throughout the country as regional and national counsel. She also had the unique opportunity of teaching third-year law students in a clinical program at a law school in New Orleans where she ran the Homelessness Law Clinic and learned, firsthand, about poverty in that city. The experiences and impressions she has collected from the past forty years contribute to the stories she writes today. She has four children, and three grandchildren, and lives in Atlanta with her husband and schnauzer. cltolbert.com