Friday, February 26, 2016

When Real People Wander into a Novel...

I don't advise writers to put their friends and relatives in their fiction, and I certainly never set out to do so myself. In fact, I often try to write about the kind of people I don't know very well to try to figure out what makes them tick.

That's what I did with Camilla. I read a newspaper article about a debutante who seemed shallow and unsympathetic, but I knew there had to be more to her than the reporter was letting on, so I wrote a kind of "rebuttal" to his interview and what appeared on the page was Camilla Randall--naive, over-polite, and over-privileged, but a person who always wants to do what's right. I talk about this in my post "Why Camilla Randall?"

Clara Peller
Sometimes I try to write about a character who turns into somebody quite different. This happened with Violet Rushforth, who's a major character in The Best Revenge. I gave her the name of my former landlady in San Luis Obispo, Violet Goforth, who was a tough old bird who raised little yappy dogs. Pekineses, as I remember. She asked me to move out when she wanted to move her boyfriend into the little "granny unit" house where I lived behind her big old Victorian. I hadn't intended to make the character anything like Mrs. Goforth. I just liked the name.

I imagined her looking like Clara Peller, the actress in the famous "Where's the Beef" ad from the 1980s.

But Violet Rushforth took on a life of her own as soon as she walked into the story. It was only after the first couple of scenes that I realized she had become my mother's "Cousin Jean" Birch--actually my grandmother's first cousin. Jean was girlishly charming, garrulous, and fierce as a mother bear. A force of nature.

Jean sent every child in the family a card on our birthdays and Christmas. She never missed. Even when she was well into her eighties. She had lots of crazy ideas, but nobody could argue with her. She'd just talk right over your objections until you realized it was best to just relax and enjoy the ride.

The Hotel del Coronado, where the fictional Violet has her 85th birthday party
Cousin Jean could make friends with anybody. She was obsessed with genealogy and once met a woman on a plane and within minutes had discovered they were distant relatives.  When the woman died, she left Jean a substantial legacy.

Because Jean was living in a Medicaid assisted living facility at the time, she couldn't keep the money. So she gave herself the world's biggest birthday party for her 85th birthday. She rented the posh Montecito Country Club in Santa Barbara, and paid to fly in relatives from all over the world. It's the only time I ever got to meet most of the relatives from that part of the family. So Violet Rushforth's unlikely 85th birthday party at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego became the scene of the climax of The Best Revenge. Violet appears to be completely dotty when Camilla meets her, but she's crazy like a fox, and turns out to be smarter than anybody realized.

At the same time, Camilla discovers that she herself is smarter and tougher than anybody realized, and she gets a lot of her confidence-boosting from Violet, whose unwavering optimism keeps Camilla going, even when she's in jail accused of murder.

Cousin Jean died long before I published The Best Revenge, but I'm pretty sure she would have enjoyed it. She might have recognized herself, but she was a good sport and I think she would have liked to know she was the inspiration for such a heroic and lovable character.

Have you ever written a story where a real person walked into your fictional world? Have you read any books where you suspect the characters are based on real people? 

The Best Revenge is available at all the Amazons, Smashwords, Kobo, Google Play, Apple, and NOOK.

SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM  is now in paperback! The paper version is available at AmazonAmazon UK , and Barnes and Noble
And in honor of its hard copy debut, the ebook is only 99c until the end of February. The ebook is on sale at all the Amazons
It's also available at KoboNook Smashwords, iTunesInkterraGoogle Play, and Scribd.


This comic novel—which takes its title from the most famous Shakespearean quote that Shakespeare never wrote—explores how easy it is to perpetrate a character assassination whether by a great playwright or a gang of online trolls. It's a laugh-out-loud mashup of romantic comedy, crime fiction, and satire: Dorothy Parker meets Dorothy L. Sayers.


  1. People from my life walk into my fiction all the time -- sometimes camouflaged by some tweaky part of my little brain, sometimes right out in the open, but mostly woven together with bits & piece of other folks. And Violet, ah, Violet - an initially loopy old gal who could win any reader's heart.

    1. CS--Hmmm. I'll have to see if I recognize anybody I know in your stories. Violet sure is one of my favorite characters!

  2. Thank you for this enjoyable treat