I laugh when I see the caption on a movie or book: “Inspired by a true story.” Here is a fiction writer’s truth: virtually every work of fiction is inspired, at least in part, by true events. Certainly, the majority are not based on a true story, but real life is what feeds the mill and gets ground into fiction.
Part of the plot for my novel, Superior Justice, was inspired by a shocking event that occurred in the little town of Moose Lake, Minnesota. Moose Lake was an idyllic, peaceful community, a great place to raise kids. But in 1999 a teenage girl, Katie Poirier, was abducted from the town. She was never found, and believed murdered. Police investigations focused on a previously convicted sex-offender going by the name of Donald Blom. Blom confessed to the crime, but then later recanted his confession.
When I heard about Blom going back on his confession, I thought it was quite strange. Why in the world would someone claim that what he confessed wasn’t true? Later on, the TV news showed him on his way to court, and he was in a flak-jacket (sometimes called a “bulletproof vest”). It got me to thinking – those things don’t stop rifle bullets, so if someone really wanted to shoot him, they still could have. I also assumed that Blom had insisted on wearing it, and so I got the idea that Blom might be a bit paranoid or something.
This all percolated in my brain. Now, what I do, in coming up with plots, is essentially to develop wild conspiracy theories. So I began to imagine – what if someone else, someone in law enforcement, was the real killer, and being in that position, faked a confession from the accused murderer, to close the case, and keep suspicion from ever falling on himself? What if the accused killer was going to court to tell the judge that the confession wasn’t genuine, and then got shot before he could reveal it? Voila, Superior Justice had a foundation.
Based on a true story? Absolutely not. The fact is Blom not only signed a confession to the police (which could, conceivably have been faked) but he also called a Minneapolis TV station and confessed in his own voice. In addition, he never claimed his confession was a fake – he just said he was under duress at the time. Also, I found out later that it is standard practice to put high-profile criminals in flak-jackets when moving them through public places, so he wasn’t being paranoid. And of course, no one killed Donald Blom. The police got their man, justice was served, case closed. But could you say Superior Justice was inspired by these true events? Ya, sure, you betcha.
And it isn’t just plots. I think most of us who write fiction tend to observe human nature, and then turn those observations into characters, or at least personality traits for characters. I’ve visited a few jails in my time. And so the several convicts who come into Superior Justice are not real people, but they share some common traits with real prisoners I have known.
Settings, if they aren’t flat-out-real (as they often are in mystery fiction) can also be “inspired by true places.” Jonah Borden’s favorite trout stream isn’t exactly real, but any northern Wisconsin trout fisherman knows precisely which river inspired it (and in keeping with the fisherman’s code, that’s all I have to say about that). Grand Lake isn’t a real town at all, but my readers who have been to the Minnesota North Shore know that it is something like some of the real towns up there.
This sort of real life inspiration is one of the things I really love about writing fiction. I see some little unexplained inconsistency in the reported facts of a situation, and then exploit it until it becomes a plot. Or I deal with an incredibly frustrating DMV worker, who has undoubtedly had her sense of humor surgically removed, and presto! I have the basis for a minor character.
I have a flair button on facebook. It says “careful, you may end up in my novel.” This is more true than you realize.
For legal purposes, however, I need to emphasize that all characters and events in my novels are completely fictional and any resemblance to real people, places or events is absolutely coincidental. 😉