Friday, August 14, 2009

Stealing the Words Out of Your Mouth

By Libby Malin

When a dear friend commented to me that she was reading my book, Fire Me, two emotions immediately coursed through me in quick succession -- joy and panic.

Joy because I was delighted someone I loved was going to read the book. Panic because I couldn't remember if anything in the book drew on any experiences I'd had with this friend!

Don't get me wrong -- I'd never reproduce any real life experience in a novel in a malicious way. But most writers do end up drawing on real life experiences as a springboard at least for the imaginary tales they tell. I'm one of those writers. An overheard conversation, an observation about an attitude, an experience that's odd, funny, or poignant -- any of these could find its way into one of my books.

It's not that I transcribe real life conversations verbatim. But if they stick in my head for some reason, I might pull them forward when just the kind of mood or temperament they typify is called for in my story. I'll embellish the "real" and expand on it, maybe enhancing it to make it more attractive, bigger, better...or less so.

So I sometimes find myself worrying if any of my characterizations or dialogue will end up seeming like a mirror to friends or relatives who might recognize some glimpse of something....vaguely familiar.

But "vaguely" is the key word here. Even a perfect person or a perfectly beautiful situation can be shaped by the writer into something that suits her particular story.

Someone once mentioned to me that she'd seen a tee-shirt with a message that went something like this -- Be Careful What You Say. I'm a Writer.

I might just have to go find me one of those!

Have you ever worried someone might recognize bits of themselves in your stories? Or have you seen yourselves in your friends' stories?


  1. I don't worry about that... yet. With historicals there's not a lot from modern conversation or situation that transposes well to 200 years ago! If I ever publish a contemporary... weeeelll, you never know!

  2. Hi Libby,

    I'm with Donna, I don't draw a lot of conversation from people I know, but I might use someone's balding head, loud voice or dark beady eyes.


  3. Yep, there are several of my books that will never be published for that very reason.

    Other times, I use bits of different people and situations that might be recognizable, but probably not. We writers do draw from life, whether from the people who are near and dear to us or those we simply observe from a distance. It's part of what makes a story come alive.

  4. If I ever do, hopefully they'll see the humor/poignancy in it that it won't matter.

  5. My daughter is a fine writer and would love to have a novel published (she's finished one - yup, I'm proud of her!). Once, we overheard a funny bit of conversation and looked at each other, thinking the exact same thing -- that it would be terrific to use in a story. I said, "you can have it." She knew exactly what I meant.

  6. I've used friend's bad dates, expeiences, including one friend's speeding ticket, because the situation was really funny. I always do the "please let me use this!" and luckily, they say yes.

    But then my imagination comes up with so much too.


  7. Several of my relatives recognize family members in my books, but the funny thing is, when they tell me who they think so and so is, they're wrong. Go figure.

    Robin :)

  8. I think my sons would buy me that shirt if they saw it. They used to complain that I was using them in Sunday school stories, even when the stories had nothing at all to do with them.

  9. I used to worry about it. Then, like Robin, I learned that even when people do recognize themselves, or others, they're wrong. :-)

    Sometimes, I've been really surprised, because I didn't use my version of what I saw them do. I used a vignette they've told me repeatedly. (Never anything they have told me in private!)

    James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) whose stories were true, only the names changed, said only one person every recognized herself.

    You know what I worry about more? Accidental plagarism.

    I'm a voracious reader, with a real packrat brain. Half the time I don't WHERE my ideas come from.

  10. Oh, I worry about accidental plagiarism, too. And repeating myself. Sometimes I think: "Did I use that in another book?"

  11. GREAT post, Libby!

    I agree with Cheryl and MM, everything I see, read, and hear is grist for the mill. Who knows when or how it will come out in a story? So I definitely need one of those T-shirts! Only mine would be more of a threat (I write romantic suspense after all): Careful or I WILL put you in a future novel!


  12. Now that I keep the company of so many authors (wink wink)... I sometimes wonder if one day I'll unitentionally (or intentionally, haha) show up as some kind of evil dictator about writing guest blogs. :) Have a good weekend!

  13. hmm, Danielle, you gave me a great idea for book 7 about the romance werewolf writer...except, I think she'll take her publicist with her and get her into all kinds of trouble...:O Marketing will never be the same. :)
    One of my daughter's girlfriends said she knew I had written her as the beautiful blond, super student, always had all kinds of boyfriends, the heroine's best girlfriend in one of my YAs. LOL Right. I tease my coworkers I will add them in my stories if they don't watch out. :) Some of them want to be. LOL