Way Stranger Than Fiction

Cops: Woman, 26, Wielded Hatchet After Her Demands For Sex Were Repeatedly Rebuffed

EMS Ghouls Competed In “Selfie War”

Voodoo Client Made Threats, Man Tells Cops (Dissatisfied customer sought marital help)

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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