Caught red handed or off scot-free?

I tried really hard to make my characters different from the people on which they were based,  because I really didn’t want to get sued for slander or libel, but apparently I didn’t do a very good job, because numerous people have recognized them.

This was most true of my first book, Murder under the Microscope, which was based on an incident that happened over 30 years ago, when I was the solo pathologist at the Twin Falls Clinic & Hospital. One of the surgeons who had been there at the time recognized who Sally Shore was based on, who Tyler Cabot was based on, and thought it was so cool that I had killed both of them off.

One of the doctors asked me which surgeon had had a coronary bypass, allowing Sally Shore to be his temporary replacement, and was quite disappointed to learn that I just made him up.

A physician on the staff of the hospital in another town recognized George Marshall, the curmudgeonly gastroenterologist of Gnarly Finger fame.

Most of my techs that worked for me back then recognized who Lucille was based on.

My second book, Too Much Blood, was based on a sleazy lawyer that got all the Clinic doctors (except me) and many others involved in a scheme to avoid paying taxes. It worked quite well for five years until Black Monday happened and it all came crashing down. Everybody involved found themselves liable for hundreds of thousands in back taxes, interest, and penalties. This adversely affected the bottom line of the Clinic, which was doctor-owned, for many years thereafter and I really believe it contributed to our necessity to sell out to the county hospital in 2001. Everybody around here knows who that was.

I spoke at Kiwanis last year about my books, and I had a few there to sell if anybody wanted to buy one. One of the members requested the one about Jay Braithwaite Burke using the name of the person on whom he was based.

My third book, Grievous Bodily Harm, was about an administrator whose ambition was to become CEO of a behemoth hospital system and didn’t care whom he had to step on to get there. He was not above blackmail and sexual harassment to get what he wanted. The administrator on whom Marcus Manning was based was a pathological liar and treated employees like s**t. He’s long gone. And strangely enough, nobody has mentioned that they recognized him. I find that hard to believe, but there it is, don’t you know.

My friends and I go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings, and one of the waitresses told me once that I needed to write a book about sexual harassment, and I said, “You haven’t read Grievous Bodily Harm, have you?”

She hadn’t, but I bet she did right after that.

As I’ve said before, my first three books were my way of killing off three of the most threatening people in my life. They were a catharsis. The characters in the other books are totally made up, with the exception of three physicians. No, four. Oh yes, and Rollie Perkins, the coroner, is based on a local mortician who was one of my favorite people. Sadly, he has passed on. The Commander is based on a retired cop who was also one of my favorite people.

I’m always willing to use real names in my books upon request. My ophthalmologist, Robert Welch, MD, asked me to use his name in The Body on the Lido Deck. He was the ship’s doctor, and quite disappointed that I’d made him look like Richie Cunningham instead of George Clooney.

Everybody laughs when they think they recognize somebody. So far, to my knowledge, nobody has been offended.

Nobody, so far, has told me that they recognized themselves.

Top things to think of when writing your own book/series

When writing your own book/series, keep these three things in mind:

  1. Write as yourself. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.

It’s all very well to read other author’s books and figure out what it is that makes you like to read a certain author. In fact, you should read at least as much as you write. But at the end of the day, it’s you who’s writing. If you’re not a person who normally uses big words or flowery phrases, don’t use them when you write. It will sound stilted and unnatural and put people off. It’s best to write the way you normally speak. I occasionally talk to book clubs and I like it when people say that when they read my books it’s like they’re listening to me talk.

  1. Write what you know.

All writers, regardless of genre, have to do some research to make sure they get the details right. So, it’s best to write about something you know well to cut down on research and make your story sound real. My mysteries are set in the world of a hospital-based pathologist because that’s what I am. When I put medical jargon into them, it sounds authentic and then of course I have Toni explain it to Hal or someone else so that the reader will understand it too. But I don’t try to write as a nurse, or a teacher, or a lawyer, because that’s not who I am, and it wouldn’t sound real, and I’d make a lot of mistakes, besides.

  1. Determine your genre, your point of view, and your audience before you start.

Yes, yes, I know, that’s actually three pieces of advice, but they’re all important. It’s a good idea to write the kind of stories you like to read. I write mysteries because that’s what I like to read, starting with Nancy Drew when I was a child. I don’t mind the occasional romance or chick-lit, but mysteries are my first love. That’s my genre.

There are lots and lots of genres. Romance, adventure, historical, fantasy, children’s, young adult, and so on. Some genres have sub-genres; for example, mysteries can be cozies, thrillers, horror, police procedurals, women sleuths, medical, legal, etcetera. It’s not a good idea to mix genres. My mysteries are cozies with a woman sleuth who is medical. That’s just fiction. There are a lot more genres for non-fiction.

Your point of view can be either first person or third person, and it’s important not to mix them up. My mysteries are first person. It’s Toni Day who’s telling the story and I have to be careful not to attribute thoughts or feelings to other characters, besides Toni because how does she know how another person is feeling or thinking? She knows because of the way they act, and that’s what I have to have her describe and deduce from that what she thinks they’re thinking or feeling. In the third person, where the writer tells a story about characters other than the writer, that’s not a problem.

Finally, what audience is your book directed at? Adults? Youth? Children? Professionals? Men? Women? It makes a difference what you put in it: for instance, you couldn’t put sex or profanity in a book meant for youth or children, but you can if it’s meant for adults. My mysteries don’t have a lot of sex, but they do have language, even the occasional F-bomb, so they’re meant for adults, and to appeal to medical professionals as well as mystery lovers.

Those are the top three, but there’s more.

  1. Keep the action moving.

Regardless of genre, it’s important not to let the story get bogged down. You want the reader to keep turning pages, not lose interest in the middle of the book. You also need to start a book with something that grabs the reader’s attention. You don’t want to start a book with a lot of backstory; you can insert little snippets of it in strategic places but keep them short.

  1. Join a local writer’s group. Or an online group.

Other writers in these writers’ groups are a great source for advice and ideas; they know people who can give you tips on how to get published in ways that are affordable to the average person. They know people who can get the book printed, people who do illustrations, and places to sell them. You can use things like Facebook and Instagram to market your book and establish a website and a blog. There are also websites like Goodreads who will do an online interview with you and post it for a small fee. There are also websites where you can pay for book reviews and post them on Amazon.

It’s extremely hard to get a book published by a traditional publisher, who pays you to write and markets your book for you; I really have no idea how they do it. I use an online independent publisher, but they charge for their services, and it can be very pricey. To purchase a publishing package can cost several thousand dollars. Add editing, proofreading, cover copy polish and cover design can be several thousand more. Then there’s marketing, and that is where we’re talking about real money. And that’s just for one book.

In other words, if I wasn’t a doctor, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. The upside is that it’s deductible as a business expense.

Also, if you plan to sell books yourself, you will need a state seller’s permit and pay state sales tax. That’s important too, unless you live in a state that doesn’t have sales tax. Idaho isn’t one of them.