Incidents, Accidents, and Conversations

Or: I recognize that bit of sausage!
Recently, I was reading a few friend’s books – Sabrina Chase’s Soul Code, and Cedar Sanderson’s Possum Creek Massacre. (They’re both very good books in their own right, though if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series, there’d be a bit of a learning curve to get up to really enjoying it.) And knowing both authors, I’ve been around for their lives the months before and during the writing… and so I started seeing bits of pieces of real life incidents, accidents, hobbies, and conversations that I recognized converted into fiction.

This isn’t unusual, and both ladies have enough craft that I still enjoyed the stories a lot, not getting thrown out of them. It doesn’t always happen that way – for example, I don’t know Charlie Stross from Adam, but one day while reading a book of his, I blinked at the page and said, “This is slashdot’s front page, aggregated and presented as a future world.” (I lived with sysadmins, network admins, and coders, so slashdot was something that was always around, in those days.) Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it… the entire book’s worldbuilding was an aggregate of about 6 months of slashdot. I could start anticipating reveals and twists, because I remembered the upcoming news stories and memes. Ruined the series for me.

As for Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance books: they were entertaining fiction, but even on the first readthrough, I could tell when they were really a fleshed-out log of a D&D campaign, right down to characters fading in the background not for story sense, but likely because they were absent that session. (The best D&D movie I’ve seen in Dead Gentlemen Productions’ “The Gamers”, which cuts back and forth between the players and the in-world campaign, for hilarious effect and “we’ve all been there” situations. If you haven’t seen it, highly recommend.)

Since all of you here know authors (you hang out here), and some of you are authors who know authors, I thought I’d throw this at you: when have you recognized real life and enjoyed it, instead of it throwing you out of the suspension of disbelief? When has it thrown you out? What makes the difference?


  1. Speaking as a reader, what makes a difference for me is whether the author uses the real-world event effectively within the story. For example, I know a certain military-SF novel in which several chapters are given to what is clearly an SFnal retelling of the ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Mogadishu in 1993. But the author did such a good job of fitting it into the story that I didn’t really care.

  2. Iain Banks, believe it was the 2nd Culture novel… partway through I realised the whole plotline was just Dicewars (or Reversi if you prefer) writ large. Went from merely holding my nose at the socialist utopia, to my never-read-again list.

  3. In general, I’d say it’s as simple as story.

    If I include a shaggy dog story about being forced to watch a really bad television show because a St. Bernard was asleep in the character’s lap and they couldn’t reach the remote…
    There’s motion (albeit not by the character!) It’s got empathy hooks. There’s a ready-made excuse as to why the character would later know (some conveniently useful) information that really isn’t in character. It’s a good moment to develop character. And you might even get a laugh or two out of it to briefly relieve some tension.
    There’s not just one reason to include it, but several all piggybacking on the same short vignette, and removing it would be taking something vital from the story.

    On the other extreme, you’ve got someone who just learned that nuclear waste glows blue, and is eagerly trying to work that detail into an unrelated conversation.
    It’s awkward.
    If there’s a point to it, it’s got all the subtlety of finding a diarrhetic elephant in your garage.
    If there’s no point to it, that’s even worse.

  4. This is a sort of sideways example… In the film adaptation of Prince Caspian, Peter is shown having a fight with someone at school (?) because he was being disrespected, he who had been a king. This was clearly the film maker’s idea of real life. It is also totally against what Lewis would have accepted as reality for someone who had been to Narnia. Going there was supposed to make you better, not more arrogant.

    Just FYI I enjoyed the descriptions of cold weather climbing in Scaling the Rim. They struck me as the work of someone who absolutely had experienced such cold which I absolutely have not done. Similarly, I know nothing about beauty contests but the descriptions from In the Rift seemed very likely to be the writing of someone who knew quite a bit about such contests. I like widening my general knowledge base painlessly as it were.

  5. David Drake does it all the time with his novels. Most of them are history or mythology with the serial numbers filed off. Oh, and one of his most obnoxious critics keeps making humiliating cameos. 😉

  6. Several friends have told me that they recognize characters and incidents in my novels from our shared past experiences. They’re nearly always wrong.

    1. I read an interview with Barbara Kingsolver (one or two highly readable litfics before she dissolved into preaching) where she said that most of her high school classmates had approached her at one point or another with “When you described that kid who was trying to look cool but was really a mess, I know you were talking about me.” 🙂

    2. *grins* Okay, in this case, I knew one incident in the book was specifically because the author reached out to me as a subject matter expert, and I’d grabbed a couple other quirky highly-experienced aviators, and we had a speakerphone-on-our-end bull-shooting session… I mean, we’d tossed ideas back and forth on various ways to solve her plot-driven problem. She not only picked the one that worked best for her world, but also elaborated on where to get it – and when she described a museum that’s a thinly disguised “Keep it running and operating” setup by the old researchers… well, any pilot who’s been to warbird museums that have a drip pan under most every airplane, knows that one full well. Nailed it!

  7. It is always depressing when an author decides, “Since I’m getting divorced, my main character is also getting divorced!” But when he does it to a series character, it can be really hard to justify.

  8. I get thrown out when I recognize the plot.. In a FB post, a writer with many books published, acknowledged he took his plots from William Porter, commonly known as O. Henry. That ruins a book for me.

    1. There are what, seven different plots?

      Everything’s derivative, the question is whether you can entertain well enough to engage the willing suspension of disbelief.
      Anyone widely read can stop, pick apart your story and suss out in general terms what’s going to happen.
      But the trick is, most readers don’t want to look behind the curtain to reveal the great and powerful Oz as a humbug. They’d rather recapture a trace of the magic from when they first encountered the story you’re telling.

      1. Depends on how you define ‘plot’.

        Generally, to get it down to a small number, they have to chop off all the sub-plots and otherwise simplify it beyond use.

        It’s like saying “It’s not hard to find people, there are only six directions. Up, down, left, right, forward, backwards.”

  9. For me, it depends. It depends on how good the writer is, what incident they used, and how they used it. I have very much enjoyed (got a chuckle from) some scenes that I recognized as either real-world incidents, or adaptations of another story. If it’s well done, I like it.

  10. John Ringo has a novel on my to-read list. When someone described the plot, I said, “That sounds like the Anabasis.” Which was, in fact, the point for him, and a selling point for me.

    Flip side, there’s a movie I don’t want to see, which is based on the real-life murder of Sylvia Ann Likens. It’s not technically about Likens, as the characters are fictional. I don’t know if it spends any time in the head of the analogue of the housewife(!) who instigated her torture and murder, but even if it doesn’t, I’m not convinced the movie will add any insight into that poor child’s tragedy. Basing the fictional movie on the real killing isn’t a selling point for me.

      1. Aye, aye, sir! 🙂

        I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those situations where I put off doing something, then do it, and then kick myself for not having done it sooner because it’s just that awesome.

  11. Not an author, but know some. Been Tuckerized a few times, including once, when I saw how my name got transformed, I had this feeling, knowing the authors, that I knew what was being set up (and I was right).

    But when I know the scene, if it’s well enough written, then I don’t care. If it’s badly written, then I don’t like it (and wouldn’t, independent of knowing the author).

  12. So someone just put up a weather station on Mount Everest.

    I was irresistibly reminded of a book I read somewhere about some people who put up a weather station in a very high locatin so they could track bad weather….

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