22 March 2015
Keeping It Real
by Leigh Lundin
A friend gave me a tattered copied of Shimmer by thriller author David Morrell, a writer admired by our own David Edgerley Gates. Suffused with a Dean Koontz-like inexplicable supernatural presence, its genre is difficult to classify– not exactly science fiction, not paranormal, not quite a crime novel.
The premise draws a reader in: without explanation, wife leaves cop husband, stops en route to her mother to visit a ‘lights in the sky’ phenomena, and subsequently all hell breaks loose. Although this mysterious phenomenon exerts an amorally moral force over people and events, it remains unexplained, which happens to work in this case.
Morrell would probably agree Shimmer isn’t his best novel, but it’s worthwhile. Initially the novel’s speech tags disconcerted me. Although I’m not overly religious about them, I’m with the group that tries to avoid speech ‘assists’. For the first few chapters, my eye stopped every time I encountered one until the plot eventually captured my attention and moved on. And that’s the hallmark: capturing a reader’s attention.
People, Places, and Things
The story referred to a movie ‘Birthright’, filmed in that area. By the second mention of its actor James Deacon, I began to wonder if the author was making an oblique reference to James Dean, if Birthright was actually the 1956 film Giant, and if ‘Rostov’ was Marfa, Texas. Each subsequent revelation convinced me ‘Deacon’ was a stand-in for Dean, finally confirmed in the afterword. Indeed, most of the details (except the age of Rock Hudson) appeared to be accurate.
Bear in mind these were passing mentions, not actual characters. So why invent James ‘Deacon’ when we could have learned details about James Dean himself? Why indeed?
Compare and Contrast
Alistair MacLean’s novel, The Guns of Navarone, inspired by the actual Battle of Leros following the fall of Rhodes in the Dodecanese Campaign. One of the central characters was a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II soldier and world-class mountaineer, chosen to scale the impassible south cliff and sabotage an impregnable Nazi fortress.
Not long after, I read about the conquering of Everest by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand adventurer in his early 20s, a WW-II veteran and world-class mountaineer… Wait, Navarone… Was that character’s name the same?
I went back to The Guns of Navarone and realized MacLean had named his hero Mallory, not Hillary, but it became clear Mallory was patterned upon the gentleman from New Zealand.
Interesting, especially since I thought this ‘semi-verisimilitude’ worked better in The Guns of Navarone than it did it did in Shimmer. Why?
At the time of MacLean's writing, Sir Edmund Hillary was still alive. While one can legitimately refer to a living public person, casting them as a full-fledged character would be a highly dubious undertaking. Alistair MacLean simply used Hillary as a prototype.
In Shimmer, David Morrell mostly alluded to Deacon in bits of semi-historical trivia. Since references to the real James Dean would have served equally well– no, better since the audience might have learned something– why didn’t the author simply name the actual person?
I can’t answer for the author, but beginning writers might find the choice confusing. A Facebook self-publishing group is convinced HUGE LEGAL BARRIERS don’t allow mention of any real person at all, not Albert Einstein nor Martin Luther King or a not-so-real Ronald McDonald, without invoking lawsuits and huge fees, and God help them if they whisper the name Elvis™ or Marilyn™, intellectual properties owned by The National Enquirer. They know this because a cousin of an aunt whose friend worked in a cocktail lounge and wrote about JFK suffered CIA reprisals and, ratted out by ‘traditional publishers’, had to pull her book off Amazon. Okay, I exaggerate… slightly.
Writers are pretty safe referring to public figures as long as they stop short of outright libel. But I also suggest keeping one’s biases in check. I recall a novel that depicted Jimmy Carter improbably abusing White House servants, a political prejudice where an author’s distaste became authorial bad taste.
So what’s your take? If an author wants to refer to historical events and persons, should they fabricate pseudonyms for real people? And if so, why?