Monday, August 18, 2014

Using Historical Crimes in Fiction

(My guest today is Carolyn Niethammer, a multi-published author of non-fiction books who has just published her first novel. Welcome, Carolyn. The floor is yours.)

In my new novel, The Piano Player, the title character, Frisco Rosie, gets involved with one of the customers at the Bird Cage Saloon where she plays the piano in Tombstone. He’s somewhat mysterious and eventually it turns out that he was involved in a crime called the Bisbee Massacre. In 1883, five men were tried for the murder of several innocent people in a robbery gone bad in the mining town of Bisbee. It became a major plot point in my book, and to write it, I borrowed liberally from the newspaper’s report of the trial and eventual hanging of what became known as The Bisbee Five.

That got me to thinking of other novels based on real crimes. Sharon Ervin thinly disguised the unsolved 1970 murder of millionaire Oklahoma rancher E.C. Mullandore in her novel Murder Aboard the Choctaw Gambler (5 Star). Sharon said she added some romance to lighten the story.

Rabbi Ilene Schneider recalled reading about some artifacts that were stolen from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The incident appeared in Chanukah Guilt (Oak Tree Press) setting off a series of unintended consequences.

My host today, J. R. Lindermuth, has also used real crimes as inspiration. His latest  novel, Something So Divine (under contract with Sunbury Press) was initially inspired by an actual murder, though he say he's strayed far from the facts of that case. His first published novel, Schlussel’s Woman, also resulted from musing on “what if’’ in regard to a similar crime. Corruption’s Child, third in the Sticks Hetrick series, came about after reading reports of thefts from the Amish.

J.A. Jance, who writes three popular mystery series, says she tries to stay away from using real crime in her books “because real crimes, especially homicides, affect real people. The families and friends of homicide victims mark their lives by how they were before that horrific loss and how their lives are after it.”

That doesn't mean, however, that real life doesn't leak into her books. She explains that in her Seattle mystery series featuring J.P. Beaumont, one of his partners ends up a paraplegic who later, comes back to work as Media Relations Officer. Several years after that,  she heard from people who thought she had copied what happened to an injured officer in Everett, Wash., who also ended up being placed in Media Relations. “The problem was,” she says, “I wrote that part (of my novel) before the officer in Everett was shot.

Other famous novels based on crimes include The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, Psycho by Robert Bloch, and The Godfather by Mario Puzo. You can read more about those and others here:

There is also the matter of fictional books and movies about crime that inspired real crimes. But that is fodder for another post altogether.

___________________________________
The Piano Player is Carolyn Niethammer’s tenth book but first novel.  She has brought the same level of exacting research to this novel as she has to her earlier nonfiction works. One early review says, “The main character in The Piano Player is the Wild West itself; especially the Gold Rush Wild West, stretching from scorching Tombstone to the frigid Klondike.” See Carolyn’s other books at www.cniethammer .com Find  The Piano Player at
https://tinyurl.com/madl42a


17 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. I never gave the issue much thought until I started writing about it myself and then wondered how other authors incorporated this real crimes.

      Delete
  2. Very interesting. I love hearing how other authors come up with the ideas for their books. I've never used real crimes in a book, although I've been inspired by them. And I've used real criminals in my historical mystery who have made "cameo" appearances.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just a cameo is frequently enough to add a bit of verisimilitude. I did use Soapy Smith also in a cameo. He was a notorious criminal preying on the prospectors as they went through Skagway in 1898 on their way to the Klondike goldfields.

      Delete
  3. Interesting post and the books better.
    JL Greger

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course I could have gone on and on with examples. But I listened to one of my early writing professors whispering in my ear: let a part stand for the whole.

      Delete
  4. Some of my fiction has been inspired by real events and or crimes. Good fiction writers are generally readers of nonfiction as well as fiction. We also live real lives. I find "faction" novels of particular interests. Congrats on the new book, Carolyn.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. Don't you think all good writers need to be voracious readers? Helps us get out of our heads and learn how real people react in various situations -- one of which might actually show up in one of our books someday!

      Delete
  5. Hmm. Real crimes seem to have a 'darker, grimmer feeling,' being real. Invented crime, like EL Doctorow, for example, can be lighter cuz you know it didn't really happen. At least IMHO. Any others agree?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Oops. I just remember, Doctorow novels' crimes WERE real. Uh oh. Well, the only thing that matters is how well the story is told, not real or invented. (I hope that gets me off the hook).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My favorite Doctorow novel is Ragtime. I've read it several times - once for fun, many more times as a teaching tool. And it is based on real incidents although beautifully embroidered. What a master!

      Delete
  7. I definitely get a darker, grimmer feel when I know a crime story is based, even very loosely, on real events. Great topic.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Interesting comment. I think this behooves us writers using real incidents to make sure the cover or other matter indicates that the story is based on real incidents.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Maybe most mystery novels are based, in part, on news stories. I was a newspaper fanatic as a kid. One summer, I read everything I could find about a Kansas killer (we lived in Winfield KS at the time) and was thrilled when Truman Capote captured the same in IN COLD BLOOD. Sleep disturbances notwithstanding, I tingled feeling I had somehow participated in the entire process.

    ReplyDelete
  10. There is a level of difference in reading about a crime that happened 100 years ago and one that you actually remember happening and read about in the paper. I thought J.A. Jance's comment about being sensitive to the real people harmed by the crime was interesting.

    ReplyDelete
  11. A great way to get ideas for a book!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great post, Carolyn .I enjoyed J.A, Jance's experience of a crime not-yet committed as it were in her paraplegic story. In your story, you wove the tale of the relationship separate from the character's crimes and it worked beautifully. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete