Way Stranger Than Fiction

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Have you ever noticed how many truly bizarre news stories come out of Florida? As a kid and young adult, to me Florida was just the place I visited my grandfather and occasionally went on vacation to the beach. It seemed pretty tame except for all the alligators. (And my grandparents did give me one of those real stuffed ones wearing a sombrero. **shudders**) It wasn’t until the last five or six years that I noticed the news stories. Of course now everyone notices the Florida news stories. The Smoking Gun, whence I pulled the above headlines, even has a “Florida” section. As to the why, ridiculous theories abound: everything from “crazy old people” to the truly baffling “racism because it’s a melting pot.” A more logical explanation is that it has something to do with Florida’s open records laws. The gritty details are ostensibly out there for everyone to report. (Elaine? Do you happen to know if this is a true thing?) I don’t mean to pick on Florida. Weirdness abides in every corner of this country, but I think that it is no accident that the novelist Harry Crews found Florida to be very fertile ground for his darkly colorful stories.

I used to keep a file of weird news clips, or crime stories that piqued my interest. Now I just make notes in my journal or bookmark them in my browser.

The one big problem with using real life, over-the-top events is that they sound way too implausible for fiction. If you ever find yourself saying, “Wow. I couldn’t make that up,” about something, it’s probably because, well, you couldn’t.

I’m not sure why fiction and real life fight each other in this way. It might have something to do with the vast number of variables in real life that must come together to lead someone to do something like wrap his face in plastic wrap to rob convenience stores. In real life, there are coincidences. In real life, there is serious mental illness, and there are women who try to smuggle drugs into the country in burritos. Conversely, in real life, things can get dull awfully fast. Just try to imagine writing that (insurance, law, human resources, retail buyer) office novel that your cousin says will make you both a million bucks after she tells you about the crazy drama that happens where she works. (Don’t do it unless her name rhymes with Micky Fervais.)

Good fiction depends on competent, complete world building. Even if you don’t spend a lot of verbiage on a character’s backstory or personality, every action that character takes has to seem plausible within the world you’ve created. That created world is a finite place, and your reader will know right away if you throw in something that doesn’t work.

Real life is full of uninventable details. With practice, a good writer can make invented details seem uninvented. One of my favorite examples is the speech of a toddler or child anywhere under the age of seven. All the wild variables of the world go into their small heads, and what comes out is often bizarre beyond belief. It makes sense only to them.

It’s a good idea to take notes on real life. You’ll discover those uninventable details if you look closely enough. Try not to think: “How would I describe this person?” Simply observe. We’ve all read a lot of books, and often come up with the same old shorthand for describing our characters, their situations, and even their speech. Look. Really look, and just write down what you see. Chances are you’ll see something surprising. Then, when you do, figure out why it’s consistent with that person. What is it about their life that makes their surprising behavior reasonable?

Here’s one more story. It’s a real life example of a bizarre event that might actually work as fiction. A sixty-eight year-old man in Belleville, Illinois, repeatedly stuck sewing needles into packages of meat at his local grocery store. When asked why he did it, he said, “it was stupidity, I didn’t want to hurt nobody.” The uninventable detail? He rode around the store on a motorized scooter with his portable oxygen tank. I don’t know why I was so struck by this story. Tampering cases are diabolical. Fortunately no one was badly injured. Wanting to know more, I did a more thorough search on his story, and found his obituary. He died a little more than a year after he was caught tampering with the meat. His case had been postponed because his lawyers said he wasn’t mentally fit to stand trial when it came up. His obituary described a man who was productive in the world, and much-beloved by his family. Somewhere in between those two documents there is a complete story, waiting to be fleshed out and told. A place where real life and supposition live comfortably side-by-side.

What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve ever included in a story? Did you make it up, and pull it off?

 

If you’re in the St. Louis area, stop by the Meshuggah Cafe on Delmar Blvd. on Saturday night, July 30, 7-10 pm. It’s a Noir at the Bar launch party for St. Louis Noir (Akashic Books, Scott Phillips, editor), and I’ll be reading with Scott and some of the other contributors.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

23 thoughts on “Way Stranger Than Fiction

  1. I imagine any ER doc or nurse could fill a book with the strangest ways people hurt themselves or others.

    The Darwin’s site listing terrible ways people die accidentally can leave you with your jaw dropped. In the right book with dark humor, I can see this working if readers were onboard with quirky.

    One news story came to me via online link from an Alaskan friend who thought I’d find it interesting. It seems a young man living in Anchorage (with his grandmother) had a party while granny was gone. When she returned, some party people were passed out in her house with her grandson nowhere to be found. He left without a note–left her with a dismembered body of a partygoer in her freezer. I asked my friend if granny had found Mrs Paul.

    I like taking real crimes and twisting them or combining them with other real events. In one book I wrote, I combined human trafficking, made it high tech/big business, then asked myself, “What if some trafficked people were more suitable as organ donors?” after I read how voluntary (and sometimes involuntary) organ donation was a huge thing in India.

    Interesting, Laura. Oddly fun.

  2. Laura, I think all my legal thrillers have some basis in actual fact (or case). I used to clip news stories from the paper (gosh, remember those days?) that jumped out at me, and throw them in a box. Every now and then I’d go through the box, seeing what still piqued my interest. One story kept haunting me. A man shot his wife in South L.A., drove to a freeway overpass, got out and shot himself. His body fell 100 feet to the other freeway, directly hitting a car and killing the driver.

    I didn’t know what to do with it. Finally I knew I just had to try. So I wrote out a fictionalized account of the incident. It sounded like a news account. I made up the names. For the driver who was killed I put Jacqueline Dwyer. At the end of the passage I was writing in first person, and ended it with “Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry.”

    Who was narrating? The story building began, and this ended up as the opening page of Try Dying, first in my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series.

    For the next book, Try Darkness, I used a legal issue that I’d found in the L.A. legal newspaper about transient hotels using a loophole to get rid of tenants.

    And book 3, Try Fear, began with another news item I couldn’t shake. One Christmas cops in Hollywood pulled over a weaving car. Inside was a very drunk 6’8″ man dressed only in a G-string and Santa hat. I thought, “This should be Ty’s next client.” And he was.

    I love L.A.

    • L.A. sounds like it speaks to the darkest, most playful corners of your devilish mind, JSB. I love how the “Jacqueline Dwyer was the woman I was going to marry,” reveal came to you. And then the series followed, all from that one account.

      The drunk man in the Santa hat and G-string story is hysterical. The fact that he was 6’8″ feels like the uninventable detail. I can just see him unfolding himself out of the car, surprising the cops who pulled him over.

    • A G-string and a Santa hat?
      Immediately transferring that story to NW Montana, I had to laugh. If that had happened here, it would have meant a headline on page 1, above the fold. And a slight alteration.
      A G-string, a Santa hat, and a gazillion blue goosebumps.

  3. I often steal murder methods from real life, but they’re so bizarre I wonder if my readers think I’ve got a murderous streak in me. LOL Like you, I have so many friends who send me articles. The truth really is stranger than fiction. Fun post!

    • Dean Koontz creates truly memorable & odd characters. In THE FACE, his evil little man in a yellow rain slicker who reeked deathly menace wherever he walked, really sent chills through me. 900 pgs, but I swear after reading it, I could not imagine one page to eliminate. A real delight.

      Koontz is a horror lover’s dream.

      • You know, I soured on Koontz for a while, but then I was sent The Face to review for The Grand Rapids Press. (Waaaay back in the day when many papers paid for reviews.) It was very memorable, and I enjoyed it. Though the device of the character in the yellow rain slicker was a little reminiscent for me of the child character in the red cloak that Donald Sutherland follows through Venice in the film Don’t Look Now, thinking it is his dead daughter. (I won’t say more because it’s a terrific film and I don’t want to spoil it.)

        • I really like the idea of DART BOARD plot devices or characters. Imagine putting ODDLY FUN brainstormed descriptions put upon a dart board and whatever you can hit, you get to write about.

          I love the idea of being painted into a corner and forced to write your way out. It’s ODDLY FUN.

    • Hi, Sue. It’s fun to surprise readers with bizarre methods of murder, especially when it’s pretty obvious that we’re not threatening types. I enjoy the pretend game, but I’ve never contemplated murdering a real person. And even if I had, I’d never actually do it because I am the lamest liar in the world. : )

  4. Laura, way back in the day when I worked for a time as a tv reporter, one of my assignments was the health beat. I learned it was a good idea to pick up the National Enquirer for story ideas. Intermixed among the gossipy celebrity drivel, they would cull the medical bulletins and include headlines about the latest medical scare. Nowadays those headlines would sound something like. “Zika zombie babies!” “Watch Out: Ebola is coming!” I would do some research, find a local angle (often, there’d be one), and hit the ground running. Of course, back then no one relied on The National Enquirer as an attributed source–I would backtrack and do my own research and sourcing for that. But that ridiculous “paper” was a great generator of story ideas.

  5. If you want strange, weirdness, and plain old scary, then try to keep up with the phenomenon of missing people all over America. (And, it’s coming to light that this is apparently happening all over the world, too.)

    One writer and commentator on the disappearances is David Paulides. Mr. Paulides was in law enforcement for 20 years, and also in business. Originally a researcher on the bigfoot phenomenon, he has apparently suspended those projects as he pursues answers about the missing children and adults. Yes, many are children.

    He has never said what he thinks is really going on out there. I listen to radio and internet broadcasts, and people push him all the time as to what he thinks. Is it bigfoot? Alien abductions? Serial killers (who would have to be loose in national forests and parks all over America, and loose around the world)?

    To make it even more frightening to me, Mr. Paulides believes, with documentation and various telephone conversations, that the U.S. government is aware of the national parks and forests disappearances, and is covering them up. And, I mean the higher ups in the forests and parks bureaucracy. Many or most rangers are well aware of what’s going on, but they don’t have any answers, either. They ask Mr. Paulides.

    Around the country, there are many (and I mean many) areas where clusters of people have gone missing. James Scott Bell, many are in California. In my own state, people periodically disappear in the Grand Canyon area, on the Indian reservations, our parks and forests, and in the mountainous and desert areas in the southeast part of the state, down around Cochise County.

    To find out if you live near where these clusters of people go missing, you can go to canammissing.com (Canada America Missing), and pull up the map.

    Jim Bell, one of the strangest occurrences of missing people, is in the case of Elisa Lam, an Asian woman from Vancouver, Columbia. In the video taken just before, and I mean just before, her disappearance, she is seen in an elevator in the Cecil Hotel, downtown. (The hotel, apparently the scene of a number of weird things, has since been renamed The Stay on Main.) She is seen possibly hiding from something or someone. Her body was found days later by maintenance workers when hotel guests complained about water problems. She was found floating in the tank, her body naked, personal effects floating near her.

    The phenomenon concerns me enough that I have asked my sons not to take our grandchildren or great-grandchildren into the area of those two clusters in Arizona.

    I won’t make jokes. This matter is far too serious and just plain frightening to me.

  6. My brother is retired from the fire department. In our city the FD runs all the 911 calls. I would visit him at the station and listen to the stories they told about some of the calls. Like the kid who was jumping on the bed with his father’s Masai spear and ended up impaled on it. But the funniest one was an older couple who was engaging in some kinky bedroom games. The woman was dressed like Bat Girl and handcuffed to the bed. The man was decked out as Batman. Apparently the man climbed up on the foot rail of the bed ready to “dive in” when he slipped and fell on his head, knocking himself out. The woman, cuffed to the bed, could do nothing to help. They were found hours later when their kids came home and called 911.

    • Whoa. Talk about the vast distance between tragedy and comedy. It sounds like you have a terrific resource for both, Dave. (I bet the Bat Girl/Batman couple had months of very awkward family dinners.)

  7. Hilarious blog, Laura. You know there’s a Florida Man and Florida Woman site devoted to our statewide weirdness:
    The Adventures of Florida Man and Florida Woman
    floridamanandwoman.tumblr.com
    A collection of headlines about Florida Man and Florida Woman, the most dysfunctional superhero team yet. This blog is run by Florida Girl, a Floridian who hates it here.
    Sorry Florida Girl hates Florida. I love the weirdness, though it makes writing more difficult because the truth is so strange.
    The reason we’re like that? I blame the sun.

    • Elaine, I just spent the last 30 minutes reading that blog. Hysterical. It took me about 5 minutes to get the whole “Florida Man” and “Florida Woman” thing because I am so slow and literal, lol. Dying over the neighbors with the empty apartment and their invisible television.

      I think you’re probably right about the sun. ; )

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