From a True Story . . .

I did a podcast this week, and the host asked if I’d ever based a character on a real person. I said, “No,” because it’s too limiting, doing that doesn’t let a character breathe on its own. It didn’t occur to me until later that I have stolen dialogue from real life, three times (that I remember). I’ve also stolen T-shirt slogans, but I don’t think that counts. (My fave: “Jesus Is Coming. Look Busy.”) But spoken dialogue? Only three times.

The first time was long ago when I was working on my MFA thesis, on a short story called “I Am At My Sister’s Wedding.” I took a break and ran to the local Kroger’s for something and ran into my next door neighbor who was buying a wedding cake for her daughter. When I admired it, she said,

“Well, she’ll only get married for the first time once.”

That may be my favorite sentence of all time. I almost ran over her to go back home and put that in the story because it was absolutely perfect for the mother in there, especially since the sister in question got married four times in the course of the story. I love dialogue like that, a throwaway line that works on about forty different levels, that has a huge well of meaning underneath it.

The second time, I was at a writer’s conference in South Carolina, having breakfast at a Denny’s next to a family with several kids. There was lull in general noise level and I heard the mother say,

“Justin, I told you, we do not hit family.”

That’s another one that when you start to unpack it, you get an entire novel. I can’t remember if I ever used that one, but I must have, it’s too good not to.

The third one I just used yesterday, from something on Facebook two months ago. I’d posted something and two men answered, two of my favorite people so I forgive them for being smartasses, but I also forgive them because I used the dialogue.

Here’s the FB post and comments:

I couldn’t help it, I laughed when I read that, and again there was so much underneath that spoke to the relationship the three of us have, my collaborator and me, my much-loved cousin and me, and the two guys who know each other and know me and so they can go out skating on thin ice together. The jerks.

But I forgive them because I got this (Rose’s PoV):

“You can tell me now,” I said, biting back my temper. I’d had about enough of men being men. “What’s going on?”

“Relax,” Max said. “We’ve got this.” He noticed Luke wincing by the door which is probably why he didn’t see I was about to rip his face off. “What?” he said to Luke.

“Now tell her to calm down,” Luke said. “Chicks love that.”

I do not use real people as inspiration for characters (although Beelzebub in The Devil in Nita Dodd sometimes sounds like Trump, as in “I have a very large brain”), but I will steal what you say to me right out from under you. You have been warned.

53 thoughts on “From a True Story . . .

  1. The third one made me laugh so hard.

    In my very first kids’ book I used a tirade that one of my neighbours aimed at her young daughter (very loudly in the middle of the street) almost word for word. The villain was actually based on that same neighbour. Some months later I realised that it was probably a really bad idea and freaked out at the thought of her reading it (she was a very scary woman), but by then it had gone to print and it was too late. Luckily she moved to the mainland before publication date.

    1. Bob always says, “First they have to read it. Then they have recognize themselves.” He figures the odds of both of those happening are slim to none. But yeah, no basing a character on real people. Except for Trump.

        1. Reminds me, I once had to ask about a bad boss: We know she doesn’t read. Are we entirely sure that she can read?

    2. Imagine living in a house, in a place where you have a ‘mainland’ to go to, or move to that’s just far enough away. Sigh.

  2. So, if we keep bringing up pirate zombies on a flaming river, we can expect to see that?

    Also, Gary’s comment made me snort!

  3. I saw a bumper sticker once that I’ll have to use in a book someday. “Militant Agnostic: I don’t know and you don’t know either.”

    It just makes me laugh. Whoever thought that up was brilliant.

    1. There are some incredible bumper stickers out there, it’s a real art. I really like that one. And there’s “Make Orwell Fiction Again.”

    2. oh there was one of those locally and I nearly stalked the driver so I could invite them to coffee and then decided that might be shaky ground

  4. In high school I was in a 1-act by Lanford Wilson called “Ludlow Fair.” Wilson wrote that he had modeled a character on a girl he knew. She was in the audience one night, stood up, and yelled “That’s me!!”

  5. I nearly snorted milk when I read this (I was in the middle of eating oatmeal for breakfast). I love this! LOL

    1. I cannot remember which author put in the acknowledgements something like “the characters in this book are based on real people who have been told and are happy about it”.

      I also think we could create a wonderful crowd sourced collection of true stories where men said “relax” and “calm down” right before catastrophes.

      1. My ex used to say, famously, “It will be all right.” every time he messed something up. It was never all right.

      2. Happened in my very small dead end street a couple of weeks ago. Two 10-year-olds racing MUCH too fast up and down the street on electric bike and electric scooter. There’s not really a traffic issue in the street, so that wasn’t the problem. But they were clearly an accident waiting to happen.

        One of them gave the 6-year-old at the end of the street a ride on the scooter. His mum was pissed off because she said they should have asked her first, and took the kid off the scooter. His dad said, more or less, ‘relax, calm down’. Roughly two minutes later there was a massive crash and the two older kids collided. Broken wrist, broken fingers, massive bruising, lots of blood, LOTS of screaming.

        The 6-year-old’s dad said to his wife, ‘I guess that was karma telling me I was wrong.’

  6. On the flip side, I stole a line from a book ‘male patterned blindness’. I use it all the time. I’m the only female in my home.

    1. It was something called About the Authors, but it’s not up yet. I’ll post here when they get it edited and send me a link.

  7. I can’t think of a whole book with characters based on real people who are happy about it, but there is the practice of Tuckerizing, mentioned here before. Usually this just involves using the name of a friend or someone who has won a charity auction, but sometimes the offer is to put the real person identifiably in. I also recall that in Anthony Boucher’s mystery novel Rocket to the Morgue, in order to justify a trick that only certain double-jointed people could manage, Boucher has a character say that he knows his friend Tony Boucher could do it. So that’s sort of self-Tuckerizing. Boucher isn’t actually a character, though. But come to think of it, a different Boucher novel has one crimesolver based on a former Sanskrit professor of his, and I’m pretty sure Boucher says that was done with permission. (He changed the character’s name, so that one was not actually Tuckerizing.)

  8. “Opinion|Calm down. Roe v. Wade isn’t going anywhere.” That was a headline in the Washington Post in on July 3, 2018. The ultimate, “Ladies, shut up, and stop whining” opinion piece by Kathleen Parker.

  9. My sister-in-law has published 3 novels. The hero of 2 of them is her gynecologist including his name. Once she was at a book fair and she heard someone say: « Mum, look the hero has got the same name as your gynecologist ».
    Obviously, she asked him for permission for using his name and he has come to all her book launches.
    The funny thing is that he is called Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
    If anybody fancies reading her books (they are in French), her name is Anne Fleischman and my favourite of her books has just been republished by a bigger publisher under the title « L’assassin est dans la nature ». Unfortunately not available in Europe at the moment 🙁

    1. I had a wonderful dentist when I lived in German Village, so when I wrote Faking It, I had Nadine go to him and tell Davy that he had a vintage decorated office and he was a painless dentist, giving him a great review. I think she called him “Dr (first name)” didn’t mention his last name. The next time I went in, they swooped down on me, several patients had read the book and brought it in to show them, and they were delighted. I hadn’t set a scene in the dentist’s office, there were no characters based on real life people, it was just a throwaway line, but it really tickled all of them.

      1. I based the animal rescue in my cozy mystery series on my own local (struggling and kind of run down) rescue, from which I’ve gotten three of my five cats. They absolutely loved it, and are always asking me to do book signings at their fund raisers.

  10. Your first stolen line could be the seed for a ton of stories. And this entire post is hilarious – thanks for sharing!

    Has anyone ever at any time calmed down when told to calm down????

    1. Generally speaking I believe it adds irritation to anxiety. Unless it’s something like “Calm down I already paid that bill.”
      There should be a word for this a la mansplaining but I’m not able to come up with it.

  11. I use a creative version of things that happened in real life in my writing all the time.
    I also collect real names that I like. I usually use a different first name with the last name & vice versa.
    And my characters are often several people I know combined into 1 person.

  12. I saw the FB post first thing this morning and knew that there were only good times ahead for today.

  13. I have to admit my crime ahead of time: I think it inevitable that I will steal that first line and use it myself in a novel someday!! And I will definitely use it in real life, especially as I prepare for one of my children’s wedding in the immediate future🤪 Thanks, Jenny!!

  14. Hello Jenny, I come from Germany and have been reading your books enthusiastically since I was a teenager.
    During my training, we were asked to mention a quote that had a great influence on us in the field of psychology. With a smile I quoted you/Gwen: “When Eve ate the apple, she gained knowledge. But God liked stupid women. And so paradise disappeared.”
    Unfortunately, I didn’t shock my then-teacher nearly as much as I had hoped, but I did shock the rest of my class. The saying still adorned the cover page of my psychology notebook as a school doodle.
    I happened to get my hands on this again two months ago and had to smile about it.

    Tilda and Agnes are still my absolute favorites and, like your other books, have a place of honor in my bookcase.

    Dear Jenny, without a translator app I’m at a loss with English, so I would really like to know if and when you will have your new books translated into German and published here in Germany? Please give me a sign of hope that I won’t have to learn English after all. I can do almost everything: cooking, baking 3D cakes, painting, writing my own novel, doing crafts, conjuring up back pain within 20 minutes, not getting to the point… but I really can’t speak English! Despite multiple attempts to learn. I’m not cut out for that… I’m really longing for new reading material…

    Jule sends warm greetings from the Black Forest

    1. Hello, Jule!
      Translations of the books to German is going to be awhile off, I’m afraid. I’m really sorry.
      But welcome to Argh! We’re glad you’re here.

      1. Hello Jenny, thank you very much for your lovely answer. How does something like this normally work? You write a book and the German/foreign publishers contact you or do you have to apply yourself? Does something like this depend on sales figures?

        1. Usually, our agent does the foreign sales, but this time we self-published so no agent. We could put the English up there, but since we don’t speak German, we can’t translate.

  15. I overheard this conversation long after I had quit writing and moved to fiber art, but it would be wonderful.
    Adult: What do you want to be when you grow up?
    Child (about four): A frog!

  16. Overheard three years ago:
    Youngest Son: “I am a god!!”
    Eldest Son: “… I’m an atheist.”

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