06 July 2013

For Your Amusement Only

by John M. Floyd

Just over a year ago, Rob Lopresti's story "Shanks Commences" appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Besides being a delightful whodunit, Rob's story was even more fun for those of us who were once his co-columnists at the Criminal Brief mystery blog. Why? Because we were characters in his story.

If you didn't see that story, let me explain: Rob gave our names to seven of the main characters in his mystery. He probably enjoyed writing it that way, and we darn sure enjoyed reading it. (Thankfully, the guy with my name didn't turn out to be the murderer.)

This was of course not the first time an author has included friends, family, colleagues, or others in his or her fiction. Bestsellers Nelson DeMille and Elmore Leonard have even turned it into a way to raise money for noble causes. DeMille's most recent novels featured characters with the full names of dozens of real people who, in return for the honor of seeing themselves in his books, made generous donations to charity. Leonard's fans have done the same via auctions.


The first time I used a real person's name for a fictional character was in a story in AHMM called "The Bomb Squad," years ago. At the time I was working with a consultant named Dan Wellborn on a project at a local bank. Dan and I both enjoyed books and movies, and since we had probably spent as much time talking about fictional matters as about work-related matters, I allowed a police chief named Wellborn to head up the city's PD in that story. I got a chuckle out of it, Dan liked it, and I suspect that no one else noticed or cared. It was just an easy way to surprise (and amuse, I hope) a fellow mystery reader.

A few months ago, I needed a name for a fictional island in a story which is featured in the current issue of The Strand Magazine. (Or at least it's supposed to be; I haven't seen the issue yet.) My fellow writer Larry Chavis came to mind, so the boat on which my two main characters meet became the Chavis Island Ferry. I went on to mention the name several more times in the story, even though--once again--I doubt anyone noticed. But I had a good time with it, mostly because it was just fun to insert something real into something imaginary. And to those who might know Larry and know about our friendship, I hope it served as sort of a private joke, a signal that fiction is not, after all, something to be taken too seriously. Like Hitchcock and his cameos.

Even more recently, I included in a Woman's World story an English teacher named Teresa Garver, who is a real person and a good friend although she lives a thousand miles away. Teresa is not really an English teacher but she is an avid fan of WW mysteries--she e-mailed me afterward to say that discovering her part in the story delighted her. (I think she told everyone she knew to go out and buy a copy of the magazine.) The fact that it pleased her made it worth the effort.

For friends' eyes only

Have any of you been the subject of this approach to naming characters or places? Do you approve of it? Have any of you writers used the names of relatives or acquaintances in this way? If so, what were the reactions of the real-life people who experienced the "identity theft"? 

There are probably writers and readers who feel that doing this is silly at best and unprofessional at worst. Their argument would be that it might "suspend disbelief" a bit too much, and distract the reader from the story. That is indeed a risk--but I don't think it's a big one. It's especially harmless if the name you use isn't well known, and/or if the author using it (like me) isn't well known, and/or if the reference is not too obvious, and/or if the story's mood is lighthearted anyway.

On a larger scale . . .

As I'm sure you know, movies and TV shows do this kind of thing all the time, usually as an in-joke. Examples:

- In the recent film Jack Reacher, the cop who gives Reacher back his personal belongings when he gets out of jail is his creator: author Lee Child.

- The seaplane that rescues Indiana Jones from the headhunters in Raiders of the Lost Ark (three years after Star Wars) has the letters OB-CPO printed on its side.

- Sean Connery delivers the very same reply ("But of course you are") in three different movies: Diamonds Are ForeverRising Sun, and The Rock.

- A small replica of R2D2 can be seen welded to the back of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

- The teddy bear that Alec Baldwin is holding near the end of The Hunt for Red October (a film by John McTiernan) is the same one that Bruce Willis is holding at the beginning of Die Hard (the next film by John McTiernan).

- In the Bond movie Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan is seen browsing through a book called Birds of the West Indies, which was written by ornithologist James Bond (and which Ian Fleming said was the source of his secret agent's name).

- In an episode of The Avengers shortly after the release of Goldfinger, John Steed receives a postcard from his former colleague Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman, who later played Pussy Galore). The postcard is from Fort Knox.

- When the kid in Home Alone 2 walks into the Plaza Hotel, the person he asks for directions is Donald Trump.

- In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant mentions a guy named Archie Leach, which was Grant's real name.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom begins in a Japanese nightspot called Club Obi-Wan.

- In The Last Stand, when sheriff Arnold Schwarzenegger's group is gathering weapons from an armory to confront the bad guys, one of his deputies holds up the same broad sword that Ahhhnald used in Conan the Barbarian.

- The keypad on the laboratory's door lock in Moonraker plays the five-note theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

- Danny Glover appears for a moment as a bank robber in the movie Maverick, and he and Mel Gibson exchange a surprised look before the film continues.

I can't speak for all moviegoers, but I love it when things like that happen (which is often), and when I'm alert enough to catch them (which is not often). There are of course many such examples, and I'd like to hear from you about others.

Guilty pleasures

As for stories and novels, the fact that I can occasionally use something that's real and outside the bounds of the story in a piece of fiction that I create . . . well, at times the temptation can be hard to resist. At the very least, it's a way that I can fool myself into thinking I'm doing something subtle and playful and clever.

It's also another way to keep this whole writing thing from being boring--to the reader or the writer.

Anybody out there want to be in my next story?


  1. Thanks for the mention, John. in-Jokes like this are sometimes called Easter Eggs. i dont know is the show LOST coined that phrase but it wase full of them. Examples include half a dozen characters named after famous economic philosohphers (John Locke being the most important), a funeral home in a scene set in the future whose name is an anagram for flash forward, a woman named Penny (Penelope) waitng faithfully for her globetrotting husband, etc. etc.

    You mentioned some of George Lucas's imside jokes but his most famous is a tendency to put references to his forst film, THX 1138, into other stories. So in the original Star Wars Chewbacca is being transported to cell block 1138.

    My nMe appears in at least two novels, one by Robert Parker, but I assume it is a coincidnece.

  2. Mr. Floyd: What a great post. More than half your film references slipped right by me. I will try to be more aware in the future. This business of using names of friends and family in stories amuses me. Especially the part where you claim to be "not well known." No one is more "unknown" than me. Thanks to you guys at SS I have 3stories out there in the ether somewhere. The main character in one of them has the name of our 15-month-old grandaughter, Ariana. Our family calls her Ari. In my story she is called Ana, just for a little separation. Don't want Ari to be embarrassed when she reaches the age of Ana in my story. Who is a spunky twenty-somthing helping to run her Uncle's PI business. Yours truly, Toe.

  3. Great post as always, John. Yes, I do sometimes name characters and places in stories for real people, but I've never used both first and last names without changing the spelling.

    My grandson's name is included in various forms many times, and several years ago, one of his good friends, a little girl named Taylor, asked if I'd use her name. I agreed for the next book.

    A few days later, she called and enthusiastically thanked me. I explained that the book her mom was reading was written before Taylor asked me to use her name. She said, "No, I looed at Mom's book, and you used it lots of times." To this day, Taylor believes Taylor's Cemetery in the Callie books is named for her. (I also made a Shawn into a Sean and made him the murderer.)

  4. TYPO ALERT! Taylor didn't looed, she looked.

  5. Rob, I've seen some of those references to THX 1138, and I remember noticing the Robert Lopresti character in one of Parker's books, but the Easter Eggs in Lost somehow got right past me. And I watched every one of those episodes.

    Toe, I'm glad to hear about your output of stories, and I hope you'll send out many more. And I doubt Ari would ever be embarrassed about having been featured in your stories. Keep up the good work!

    Fran, I'm pleased but not surprised that you do some of this kind of namedropping in your fiction as well. It really is fun, especially for readers--even if sometimes the "connection" is unintentional.

    I did notice something funny the other night--I was watching a recent Matt Damon movie (Promised Land) and in one scene Damon walks into a store where the man behind the counter is the guy who played "the man in black" in Lost. Pinned on the wall as he enters is a poster asking for info about a missing pet, with the words LOST in huge letters.

  6. John, how did you detect all those movie in-jokes? If I didn't know what a prolific writer you are, I'd say you had too much time on your hands. ;)

    Re naming characters, the opportunity to appear in a favorite author's book has been one of the most prized items in the live charity auctions at both Malice Domestic and Bouchercon for years. More recently, some authors have offered the chance to have a character named for your pet. Then they have to work the winner's species into the story. I've never done it myself. In these chancy times, not every author is sure there'll be a next book.

    And yes, I'd get a kick out of having my name in one of your stories. :)

  7. Liz, what better way to spend time than reading, writing, and going to the movies??

    Okay, you've done it now: you will definitely be in my next story. (Whether it sells is another matter . . .)

  8. Great column, John -- and a really fun read. As noted in a previous post, Ellery Queen novels are riddled with "Easter eggs."


    There is sort of a "reverse" easter egg in the film version of Evita. In one of the songs from the stage version there is a line "The new world Madonna with a golden touch." The line is altered since in the movie the part was sung by -- Madonna!

  9. John: An "in joke" from an old movie will be on display tonight on TCM when they show Key Largo (my favorite Bogart and Bacall film). A motor cruiser named Santana figures in the plot. Santana was the name of Bogart's own boat (a fifty-plus-foot sailboat). Bogart named his production company Santana as well. Bogart bought "Santana" from Dick Powell, a fellow Warner Bros. actor and, later, a rival Philip Marlowe.

  10. Dale, I'm glad you mentioned the EQ novels. I think a big reason for Easter eggs in any piece of fiction is that everyone likes to feel smart, and to feel that he or she is "in on the joke." It's a way that the writer can, in a (sometimes) subtle way, include and bond with the reader--or the viewer. And I love the Evita reference.

    Terry, thanks for the heads-up. I'm crazy about the Bogie/Bacall movies, and Key Largo in particular.

  11. Those of us with a background in science fiction and science fiction fandom know the act of using names of friends in our fiction as "Tuckerization," after the late mystery and science fiction writer Wilson Tucker. (See a complete description here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckerization )

    And, yes, I've been Tuckerized. In Thomas F. Monteleone's novel Day of the Dragonstar, I am Michael Bracken, Lt. Captain, IASA, Back-up Astrophysicist and Navigations Specialist. It's been a while since I read the book, but I think I die a hero.

    And several times over the years I've used the names of friends, relatives, and other people in my own work. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it isn't. Either way, I get a kick out of it.

  12. Michael, you have once again managed to educate me. I like the term "Tuckerization." I'm also pleased to learn that I now know a Back-up Astrophysicist.

    And you're so right--I get a kick out of it too.

  13. A very interesting blog, full of fascinating info! I'm careful not to use real people's names for fear of offending them in some way. However, you can use my name if you like--just don't make me the murderer!

  14. Pat Marinelli06 July, 2013 12:51

    Great topic, John. Yes, I've used my relatives names in short stories. No one seems to mind. But, the cutest thing was when one of my critique partners used all our first names and our hubbies first names for all the character in her story.

    Of course, now I have to go check out some of these movies.

  15. Jacqueline, I think you're right--the main thing is not to say anything offensive about someone. (That of course goes for companies, products, etc., as well.)

    Thanks, Pat. I'm pleased to find that so many of us have done this kind of thing, from time to time. It usually doesn't occur to me to do it until my story is finished and submitted, and that's a little late.

  16. John, ultimate example is "A Fish Called Wanda" where John Cleese's character is named Archie Leach - Cary Grant's real name.

  17. Eve, I'd forgotten that--and I own the movie! You're right, that's the ultimate example.

    I also like it when actors who played a part in a movie show up again when the movie is remade years later: Kevin McCarthy comes to mind, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Burt Reynolds in The Longest Yard.

    Just remembered one more thing. At the end of the Steve McQueen/Ali McGraw movie The Getaway, the man who sells the fleeing couple his truck at the end is Slim Pickens. In the Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger remake, the man who sells them his truck (Richard Farnsworth) is named Slim.

  18. Enjoyed reading your column, John. You must have an awesome collection of movies and a terrific memory to keep track of all that. I'd love to write a Woman's World mystery and use your name for the detective. Your stories inspired me to write another mystery and send it in.

  19. Thanks, Vicki -- I do have a BIG collection of movies. Not so sure about the terrific memory though.

    I'd be honored to have you name a detective after me--but he'd probably bumble around like Inspector Clouseau and never solve the case. GOOD LUCK, by the way, on your WW submission!--please keep me informed.

  20. Thanks, John! I will. Forgot to tell you that I enjoyed your last story in WW.

  21. What a fun post! This isn't quite the same, but Caroline Hart mentions other people's books in her books. I'm going to try something similar in my next series, if the editor okays it. If you have extra characters, it would be a huge thrill to find my name in your writing!

  22. Vicki, thank you for the kind words. I'll have another mystery in WW next week--hope you like that one.

    Kaye, I bet your editor won't mind that a bit--give it a try. Thanks so much for the comment!

  23. Was just reading the other day how Rod Serling named a teacher in a Twilight Zone episode "Helen Foley" after one of his favorite teachers. And Michael, I'd never heard the term "Tuckerization," thanks for the info!

  24. Jeff, I've grown to dislike the word "amazing," lately--but Rod Serling was amazing.

  25. What a fun post, John. I love finding the "Easter eggs" in stories, and recognizing them in TV shows and movies. I guess the most recent one I remember was the Castle episode with the Sci-Fi convention. I included a lot of cultural references in a play I wrote, Dot and the (Amazing Technicolor) Quest for the Real Santa Clause---from Lost in Space to Monty Python. Not sure that's the same thing, though. As far as using real names, I do use combos of old family names for characters, but since they're all long passed on, they don't really care. :-)

  26. Bobbi, a lawyer friend once told me he likes to use the names on gravestones and the names in obits for his characters. For one thing, they provide a great variety of possibilities, and for another, the owners of the names can't sue him.


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