I’m reading a delightful mystery novel right now (NO BELLS, by Marilyn Meredith) and, because of rather unique circumstances, am experiencing a “hiccup” every time one character’s name is mentioned–which comes up frequently.
First, let me explain that it is the practice of many authors to honor people by giving book characters a real person’s name. This can be an individual decision by the author (with permission from the “namee,” ) or, frequently, the right to have a book character named after yourself or someone you want to honor is auctioned at writers’ conferences to raise money for a cause related to writing and reading.
So, finding real names in books is not uncommon, even when the book is not a historical novel or a biography of some “worthy” person, past or present.
So, why the hiccups? Because I KNOW the real, living, (delightful) person so honored in this book. It’s never happened before in any work of fiction I’ve read, but, every time the name comes up, I see and hear the person I know, not the book character. It is a unique, and somewhat bizarre reaction on my part, and, to some degree, it interrupts my involvement in the story .
Odd, because one thing I love most about this on-going series set within the lives of various members of a police department is my belief, while reading, that these are all very real people, living real lives, and I am privileged to be hiding (a fly on the wall) to know their thoughts and actions. In other words, this is one of my favorite novel series, ever.
That said, have I ever used real people in my own books? Yup, I sure have. Twice I’ve used people who actually played the parts in novels that they play in real life. One was a ranger who was very much involved in helping me develop the setting and plot of A RIVER TO DIE FOR, a story that takes place mostly in the caves and abandoned mines at Buffalo National River in Arkansas. It turned out to be challenging to write him into the story. Though he was eager to be part of this work of fiction, I didn’t want to “make” him do anything he might not do in real life. Truth be told, I didn’t want to upset either this man or his bosses. Everything came out okay, but it was a challenge I wouldn’t repeat.
In JOURNEY TO DIE FOR, I used Chuck Dovish, host of a popular PBS program called “Exploring Arkansas” as part of the story, filming a ride on a restored 1920′s passenger train as Chuck has actually done more than once for his program. In this case I had no problem because Chuck simply did in the novel exactly what he does for AETN. And, when Carrie McCrite, Henry King, and their friends view the resulting program in the story, they discover a valuable clue to a murder that occurs following their ride on this (real) train. It was great fun all around.
99% of the people reading either of these novels wouldn’t know the real people taking part, so I assume no problem. If they do know them, since both are really doing what they would do or actually do in real life, I suppose it isn’t distracting. (But I don’t know this for certain.)
In my latest novel (A FAIR TO DIE FOR, to be released by Oak Tree Press later this spring), I again use the names of two real people as a big part of the story. One, Carrie’s mysterious cousin, Edith Embler (“Edie”) is named in honor of the real person by the same name who was a reviewer for “I Love A Mystery” review site, and became a real-life friend of mine when she and her husband came to Arkansas to visit the locations where my novels are set. I enjoyed my time with this delightful couple. Edie passed on shortly after their visit, and I, along with other writers who knew her, promised to honor her by naming a book character after her. I have done that in this story. The second real person, who has been a frequent poster to the mystery fan site, DorothyL, is John Bohnert, who, among other things, often told DorothyL members what delicious-sounding meals he was cooking. I don’t know John face-to-face as I came to know Edie, but he is definitely a real person, and appears in A FAIR TO DIE FOR as famous Chef John Bohnert from Grass Valley, California.
In spite of what I’ve just written, I don’t often have any problem with confronting real names in fiction, mostly–as I have discovered–because I don’t really know them and can’t picture a real person owning the name. In the case of the character in NO BELLS, I’ll gladly put up with it because I know the name honors a friend of the author’s, and of mine!