Blurred Lines? Fiction and Reality Are Closer Than You Think. As I have found when writing my own novels featuring the world’s first criminologist Italian academic, Cesare Lombroso, using real historical figures in any genre is a challenging strategy for a writer but in crime fiction the problems are even more acute. If the story strays too far from the truth then it can jar and make the plot implausible. Making someone well known into a psychopathic murderer, when the facts do not support this, is a case in point. The end result would be a parody and almost certainly not a very good one. But then if a story sticks to reality too religiously then you might as well be reading a biography.
Finding a balance is key and it does have its advantages. Characters can be given more depth because they are portrayals of real people or are inspired by them. It can also be a great plot device. A novelist can place their subject in an unfamiliar fictional situation, and, based on what they know about that person, drawn from their writing and the writing of others, speculate how they might react and attempt to reproduce it. There are plenty of examples where this has worked well. Giles Brandreth puts Oscar Wilde at the heart of various crime mysteries drawing in Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker amongst others to give him a helping hand. Stephanie Barron has Jane Austen as an amateur private detective.
But real people in fiction don’t have to be detectives or even play a central role in the mystery. Historical figures can also be brought into the action for other reasons. C.J Sansom has used the characters of both Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII to great effect in his Matthew Shardlake novels. Their presence helps to create an authentic feeling of threat and fear and makes the period setting even more vivid. Sigmund Freud is a character in the crime novels of Frank Tallis but the investigation is carried out by fictional characters. In my own novels Lombroso and his assistant Ottolenghi, both real, do investigate but not with great success, weighed down by their criminological theories. Much of the crime solving work is done by my fictional detective, Scottish doctor James Murray. Having a fictional character coming into a real world situation is also helpful as he can guide us through it and ask the right questions to explain it. Murray is an example of another way of using the real person in crime fiction. The character is loosely based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as he was also born in Edinburgh and studied at the medical school, working as a clerk for Professor Joseph Bell who makes an appearance in ‘The Devil’s Daughters’. This means that I can draw on the real Conan Doyle for inspiration but still have the freedom to introduce other characteristics.
Like many others before me, I have also used real criminal cases and their perpetrators as inspiration for my plots and characters. This often lends authenticity. A recent example of a novel where this has worked particularly well is ‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters, which was inspired by the 1920s case of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, executed for the murder of Edith’s husband. Waters changes the gender of her protagonists and because it not just a reconstruction of the real case manages to keep the reader in suspense until the final page.
But even when real people appear as characters, an author need not necessarily be constrained by reality. When writing my second novel I wanted to bring in Lombroso’s family and was talking it over with my editor, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t find out much about them. ‘That’s all right,’ she said smiling at me. ‘You can just make it up.’
Now why didn’t I think of that?
Diana Bretherick’s ‘The Devil’s Daughters’ is published by Orion on £13.99 hardback/£7.99 ebook