Writing People You Know Without Them Knowing

 

It’s tricky.

Very.

While people love attention, adore being in the spotlight, they’re not particularly happy to display their personal idiosyncrasies, their personal history, or their dirty underwear.

After all, in books, just like in gossip, it isn’t the nice patina and gloss someone voluntarily shows to the world that intrigues. It’s the stuff that’s under the hood, kept behind the curtains, stuffed into the closet, and never, ever aired in public that makes for an interesting character or scene.

Old Hickory Lane, a novel novel cover: To Inherit a Murderer, a novel by E. J. RuekOld Hickory Lane and To Inherit a Murderer, both, are populated with people who actually still live or who died–people I knew or know–and with situations and incidents that actually happened. To write “what I know” safely, though, and not get hate mail or worse, I had to do more than just change the names and redraw physical characteristics.

Like the old song, ‘The Gambler’, you’ve got to know what to keep and what not to, and, more pointedly, what to obscure and what to blatantly place center stage by keeping the core and confounding, even compounding, the irrelevant.

The first scene snip is a rare excerpt from Old Hickory Lane. I wrote it to demonstrate the ingrained prejudice–some of it well-deserved–that dogs individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds. The second scene snip below, a scene from To Inherit a Murderer, exposes, not just the novel’s most simple and overt plotline, but the subtle nuances of attitude and air. In the third scene snip, also from To Inherit a Murderer, the irony inherent in a specific kind of discrimination is the point.

“What made you sic Jake on me that day,” Warren asked.

“I thought you was here to deal drugs, maybe hurt us if we didn’t buy. You know, cause us trouble. We might be drunks, but we don’t much like dopers.”

“I look like a doper to you?”

“You’re a prairie nigger. You had hypos.”

Warren bristled at the insult, but was more concerned at the revelation about needles and syringes. There were some in the kit and in his drug box, yes, but not out in the open.

“I’m pretty good gettin’ in and out fast and quiet like. You went to take a leak. Stuff in that lock box said doper to me, but the books didn’t make no sense. That’s why I asked first, didn’t just slit your throat when you were asleep, then cut you into itty bitty pieces and throw you to the fish.”

–From Old Hickory Lane

“So what’s with the fat kid,” Nancy asked pointedly over a late glass of wine, just her and Deborah sharing the floor in front of a fake fire in the sitting room.

“Remember Sherry?” Deborah said.

Nancy shook her head. “No. Sorry.”

Deborah laughed. “Well, you only met her once, if I remember. Anyway, Sherry and her husband, Washington’s governor, were killed in a car wreck, and William came to live with me thanks to bad luck, a will, and the courts.”

Delicate eyebrows arched. “Somehow, you’ve never struck me as mom material, no offense,” Nancy said, her New Jersey accent dripping a matter-of-fact drollness.

“Yup. You’re right. I’m not.”

“Oookaaaay. So this isn’t something you’re too keen on?”

“No, I’m not.”

Nancy nodded, audibly sucked breath in through her surgically refined nose, then asked, “More wine?”

“Please.”

–From To Inherit a Murderer

“The kid has a knack for finding my buttons, then pushing them.”

“Innocently,” Jim replied.

“…I suppose.”

“You know, all kids have that particular knack.”

“Right.”

“They do. Mine does.”

This was a revelation. “Yours?” she asked softly. In all the years she’d known him—-more than five now—-he’d never mentioned having a child.

“Yeah. I’ve got a daughter. I never told you, did I? She’s just about William’s age, and all attitude. Lives in Boise with her mom.”

“I didn’t know you’d been married.”

“Yup. Wife decided to shack up with my partner.”

“Your partner? …When you were a cop?”

“Yup.”

Deborah’s eyebrows shot to her hairline. “And they awarded her custody?!”

“Yup. It’s Idaho, remember? It takes a lot to get them not to.”

“That’s sad. She marry the guy? …After the divorce, I mean.”

“Nope. They live together.” Jim smirked a look over at her. “Deborah, my working partner was a woman, and so was my wife. Gay marriage isn’t legal here, remember? …Of course, the courts didn’t know about the lesbian activities, and I didn’t use it against her, though maybe I should have. Southern Idaho is extremely conservative, though, and I didn’t want my kid to suffer the stigma.”

–From To Inherit a Murderer