Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Milking a "crime" for all it's worth

As a writer, I'll admit it--I don't get out much. My days mostly revolve around my laptop, the dog park, and reruns of K9 Cops on Animal Planet.

So whenever something mildly interesting does happen, I run with it. Like last week. A guy driving an over-sized pickup ran into a parked SUV at the dog park, whacking off a good-sized chunk of fender. I left to find the SUV's owner, while the pickup driver sought a pen and paper from other bystanders.

I returned with the SUV's owner, and discovered that the guy in the pickup had taken off without leaving a note. It was a hit and run. A young girl, a budding Nancy Drew type, had had the presence of mind to jot down the pickup's license plate. The police had already been called.

I had actually recognized the guy's face, so I stayed while the police arrived and took statements. When it was my turn, I gave a detailed description of the pickup driver. Unfortunately, I didn't know his name. "But his dog is a white German Shepherd named Freedom," I added helpfully. I kept referring to "we" as I described what had happened.

"Who was with you at the time?" the patrolman asked.

"Just my dog, McGregor."

"I wonder if I should write that down," he said, looking like he was trying not to smile.

From that day on, every time I went to the dog park, I was on high alert. I was determined to spot the pickup driver, just in case he tried to sneak in his white Shepherd for a game of fetch without being caught.

Two weeks later, I saw him. He was lounging by the fence, chatting up the owner of a Great Dane like he had nada a care in the world.

I leashed McGregor, stole back to the parking lot, and located the pickup. After a brief struggle over the morality of turning snitch, I called 911. I gave my name to the operator, recounted the hit-and-run incident, and said, "The guy's here right now if you're still looking for him."

I expected the 911 operator to chide me for taking up emergency time with a minor call--after all, this is Los Angeles. But instead, she put me on hold. And then, by God, I was patched through to an officer. It was the patrolman I'd given my statement to two weeks earlier.

He told me that they'd found the pickup driver after running his plate.

"The guy copped to the whole thing," he said. "We told him we had a solid witness on him, so he had nowhere to go on it. The insurance companies are working it out. Thanks for calling it in, though."

I slunk back to the dog park. Maybe it was my imagination, but I was sure the Shepherd's owner gave me a stare down. I felt certain I'd find a pile of poop on the hood of my car later on.

I think I'm too much a sponge for this sort of thing. I make notes over every little event, thinking that someday I'll use it in a story.

I guess I really should get out more. Take up skydiving or something.

How about you? Do you "use" real life events as kindling for the fire in your fiction?  Are you oddly pleased when something unpleasant happens in your life, just so you know what it feels like?

22 comments:

  1. Oh! I love the photo of that shepherd! Awww!

    My life is uniformly boring. I didn't use the incident to inspire my writing but a couple years ago I was cordoned off from my apartment in the 'hood for 3 hours because they had a shooter pinned down in another apartment building close by. But rather than thinking of it for a story, I wished I could turn kick-butt special forces dude and take the stupid shooter down myself to get it over with. LOL!

    But I do find that even if my life is boring, ultimately you will run across someone with a little story of their own that inspires you with a new novel idea.

    BK Jackson
    http://www.bkjackson.blogspot.com

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  2. Thanks for this post! i really enjoyed reading it!!!

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  3. Nothing like a major inconvenience to make us channel our inner John McClane, BK!

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  4. I love pulling from real life in a story. It always requires some embellishment, but it makes it so much more real when you can pull from the sights and sounds of a previous experience.

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  5. Kathryn, you've definitely got the makings of an interesting scene in a future book. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  6. 99.99% of being a criminal defense attorney is incredibly boring. Sitting in court, pleading out drivers license offenses and listening to lame-butt excuses.

    However, every once and a while, something sticks with you. When I was in law school I interned for the DA. Now, talk about boring, I was their personal staff scutt puppy. I developed a talent for writing probable cause affidavits for arrest warrants. One of the murder DAs kept a red goblet on his shelf. Just a junky clunky tacky dimestore thing. Okay, a dimestore thing with an evidence tag on it. One day he told me the story.

    Some kids found bones in a well. Cops were clueless. However, two days later a bunch of stoners were partying and played the "goblet game" which is a type of seance. In the middle, a guy jumped up and yelled, "Old man Mactaggart is coming back to get me" and ran. Next day the well story broke and a party-goer called in with this little seance story. One thing led to another . . . I got to see the trial and it was also rare high comedy as everyone pointed fingers at everyone else.

    That was the basis of my first trunk novel. In my story, the victim really did come back and help the DA prosecute his own killers. So, yeah, life does inspire occasionally. Now, if I could only come up with something interesting about drivers licenses.

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  7. I do this all the time. Out somewhere, see an innocuous situation (nothing as dramatic as your hit and run), and make up sinister motives and undercurrents. They don't too often work their ways into stories, but it's good practice, and a lot of fun.

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  8. I love mixing real life into my stories. To be honest I have had a pretty interesting life much of the time. While it is not nearly as interesting as the characters in my books, it didn't take much imagination to change my realities to a rip-roaring thriller.

    For instance the remote Alaskan town of Salt Jacket where Mojo Johnson lives in my book 65 Below is not so loosley based on my own real home town of Salcha (originally called Salchaket by the Athabaskans that lived there). The old military bunkers where he discovers North Koreans digging up a bio-weapon are really there and may well contain just such a dangerous thing. I used to roam all over the more obvious of those structures as a teenager. I know that they do contain decommisioned weapons and explosives as I had friends who guarded the convoys that buried the stuff under layers of concrete. The stuff he endures in the back story are based on the story of some other Marines I heard when I was in the Corps.

    Likewise with my other books, there are many elements of them that are based on things I have experienced or been told of by those who experienced it. Faithful Warrior is based on a story a friend told me about an elder in his church who confided to the pastor (who was a former Special Forces officer) that he was still actively working as a CIA hitman and it bothered him to hide what he did from his family and friends but he couldn't stop killing bad guys. True story.

    I think that writing as close to the truth as possible brings a sense of reality, of the story being alive.
    My character Kharzai, the crazy CIA agent with a penchant for humour and violence, is even based on something semi-real....if you count my own imagined alter-ego as real.

    win a copy of the Audie nominated audiobook that introduces Kharzai Ghiassi, the “fuzzy Persian” CIA spy. Go to www.basilsands.com for details.

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  9. Ha that post was so real. It's like, all the real reactions someone would go through in that type of situation ie. when you had your brief debate over the morality of being a snitch

    you're doing the right thing, but then you wonder if you really are doing the right thing, or if you're just overreacting! ha i love it

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  10. Moral of the story--never commit a crime in front of a crime fiction author. I can just feel the adrenaline in your retelling. All you needed was dramatic production music.

    Ballsy for the weasel to return to the scene of the crime.

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  11. I bet the action movie soundtrack was playing in her mind as she moved through the park. A little spy music...then the heart thumping action sequence music, lots of bass and fast beats...then... the cop says never mind and she hears the fail music from a game show ... bwa-bwa-bwaaaaaa....

    sigh....was there at least a consolation prize? Like a punch card for free coffee & donuts? Or a free ticket the check out one of the local policeman's balls?

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  12. uh....that last entry may not have come across quite the way I initially intended.

    really gotta proof read these things before clicking publish...

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  13. Great dramatic /story potential.

    What if your police info did nail the 'perp' for the offense and the ramifications were indeed huge (previous want/warrant, discovery as witness protection,?,?,?)

    He or his could be coming after you KL!! Kinda spooky.

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  14. Oh, I just remembered a similar instance to your article Kathryn. Back in 2003 a user of my computer network brought a very strange email to me. It was one of those generic viagra type junk mails and she had intended to delete it but hit the print button instead. When it came out on her black and white laser printer she saw text in the email she had not seen on the screen. And that text was pretty scary stuff. It turns out that below the junkmail text of the email there were several paragraphs taken from multiple pages of the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that were in a bright yellow font on a white background, nearly invisible on the screen. Printed out, it came up in a gray font easily readable. The text was about several people taking a trip to New York, meeting with a submarine, and attacking a place in NYC. We were both alarmed by it and I sent a copy to the FBI, but got brushed off by them. I sent another copy to Senator Ted Stevens office and didn't hear anything back for several weeks. Then one day I got a letter in the mail stating that his office had passed it on to "people who could act on it" and thanking me for my diligent service to national security. I was like, "Dang! that turned out to be real!" I have wondered ever since if that email may have constituted one of those 'credible threats' we occasionally hear of on the news.

    okay...that's my last entry for today...really and honestly...unless something else comes up...something really important...or silly

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  15. I definitely use real life events in my stories. I missed a train while traveling in England, and what followed was a nightmarish twelve hours as I tried to get back to be with my friends. At the time, it was terrifying (and exhausting, because I had to stay awake all night to catch buses), but I'm planning on using that event for a story, because it was so emotional for me.

    The people that I meet can also influence the characters that I write. I tend to file away my experiences and then access them as need while I write.

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  16. The fun thing about using real life events is changing them to make them exciting. Sometimes one little event happens during the day and that's all it takes for a scene to develop.

    I was recently at the Scene of the Crime writers festival near Kingston, ON, and it surprised me how many authors there said they took characters from real life. They cautioned to make changes and not copy a person exactly.

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  17. Terri, that bones story definitely sounds like it was good fodder for your fiction! Basil, based on your experience, I imagine that Alaska must be filled with characters and plot possibilities! Jordan, I also thought it was foolhardy of the guy to return to the park--everyone was on the lookout for his truck, and most knew his dog. We're all obsessed dog people there.

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  18. tjc, I'll be looking over my shoulder from now on, lol! Steventhe, a train ride is a good vehicle for a story (pardon the pun), esp. because a train is often a symbol of the journey toward death.

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  19. Kristina, I think most writers "steal" a bit from life. Some have also written characters to get "revenge" on annoying people from the past. Those characters have to be well disguised, of course!

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  20. Yes, yes and yes, Kathryn! So, far there has been a touch of real life in every book I've written--either in plot development of character motivation.

    I'm always on alert when I leave the house. Don't you just love our jobs??!!

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  21. "because a train is often a symbol of the journey toward death."

    Journey toward death? Oh dear. I'm glad I didn't think about it at the time. I was stressed out enough as it was...a silly American college student. That'll learn me for not double-checking the train schedule.

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  22. Fortunately, or unfortunately, as a retired CSI I can not escape my past when writing! I think when a writer uses real life experiences it enriches their work and the reader appreciates it all the more.

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