By Margaret Lucke
A few weeks ago at a bookstore event, I heard novelist Carl Hiaasen recount how he came up with the title and opening scene of his latest book, Razor Girl. He was inspired by a brief article in a Miami newspaper about a fender-bender that occurred on the Overseas Highway between Miami and Key West.
It was a case of distracted driving -- the woman at fault was on her way to a hot date and was trying to catch up on her personal grooming. When the accident occurred she was preoccupied with wielding a razor to trim her, um, nether regions.
As fodder for fiction, Hiaasen found the situation to be irresistible.
- "A true story" -- Actual events are depicted as they really happened. In other words, nonfiction.
- "Based on a true story" -- Actual events lie at the heart of the plot but the author takes liberties when it comes to developing characters and creating drama and suspense.
- "Inspired by a true story" -- An actual event sets the author's imagination spinning. The resulting tale may contain an identifiable kernel of the actual events, or may end up being something wholly new.
Razor Girl is the third type. Hiaasen didn't take his plot from the news item. The Razor Girl of his book has a different personality and different motives from the actual woman, and Hiaasen uses the incident to set into motion an entirely different chain of events from whatever happened in real life.
My latest work in progress falls into that category too. For years I've collected news clippings. I have a great many file folders, both paper and electronic, that are stuffed with articles that caught my interest and made me say, "That would make good plot material … background details … research information ..."
One of the items I filed away nudged at my brain for two decades. It was a question-and-answer real estate column published in the Sunday paper in August 1996. The inquiry, along the lines of "What do we do now?", came from a person whose family had recently bought a house. Shortly after they move in, strangers showed up at her door claiming to be the true owners. It turned out the woman who had sold the house was con artist and the sale was a fraud.
The clipping came to mind when I was looking for the next story for Claire Scanlan, the reluctantly psychic heroine of my haunted house series. I unearthed it from its file folder and read it again. My imagination was off and running: Who were these people, and how did the tug-of-war over the house affect their dreams and their lives? Who was the mysterious seller, and how did she pull off her con? Who would end up with the house? And, since I mostly write crime fiction: Who would end up murdering whom?
The question posed in the real estate column formed the foundation of my book's opening scene. The column was sparse on details, though, so it's up to me to figure out who these characters might be, and what they are up to, and what happens next.
My inspiration is a different kind of news story than the one that Carl Hiaasen turned into Razor Girl, but like him, I found it irresistible.