17 September 2016


Something I've always enjoyed, when reading novels and short stories, is finding things in the story that are familiar to me. Things like street names, restaurants, movies, quotes from movies, quirks of regional dialect, etc. When authors insert those into stories, it seems that it can establish an instant connection between writer and reader.
Because of that, I suppose it shouldn't have been surprising to me to find, after I'd published a number of stories, that readers sometimes approached me (usually friends, and often jokingly) with the suggestion that I should someday use them in a story. Or at least use their names.

You know, that's not a bad idea …

My reaction to that was Why not? We writers dream up names all the time for our characters; it would be easy to stick a real name in, now and then. Especially if you know that those folks already like what you write and would enjoy seeing themselves as a part of it.

I don't do it all the time, of course--most of my character names continue to come from the same place my plots do: my overactive and usually scary imagination. But when the situation's right and it fits the character and I can remember to do it, I try to plug in a familiar name.


- Teresa Garver, an old friend and avid Woman's World reader who lives in Georgia, made an appearance a couple years ago as a high-school English teacher in one of my WW mini-mysteries.

- Chuck Thomas, one of my customers during my IBM days (and one of the smartest programmers I've ever known) showed up as one of three schoolkids who captured a python that had escaped from the zoo in a story called "Not One Word." It first appeared in the now-defunct Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine in 2002 and has been reprinted several times since.

- Charlotte Hudson, a former student in my writing classes, has been featured in two of my Woman's World mysteries. In one of them, she and her real-life husband Bill were farmers who owned a pond where the main character liked to fish.

- Cheryl Grubbs, a dear friend from my high school days, will be the deputy of Sheriff Ray Douglas in a story called "Trail's End," coming up soon in AHMM. She's also on hand in the next installment of that series, which I sent to AH a few months ago. Whether they decide to buy it is (pun intended) another story …

- Charles Heisley, an old Air Force buddy who lives in Honolulu (I visited him there once, back when I was globetrotting with IBM), became a Louisiana state cop in my story "The Blue Delta," which is included in the Bouchercon 2016 anthology Blood on the Bayou. (Note to all readers: Invite me to Hawaii and you get featured in any story you want.)

Sometimes the mention of a name can be oblique, and subtle. In honor of my friend and fellow Mississippi writer Larry Chavis, my lead characters in a Strand Magazine story a few years ago were passengers on the Chavis Island Ferry--in fact the whole story took place on that boat. And a lady in one of my many stories for Futures was Janet Bailey, a combination of the names of two of my writer friends, Janet Brown and Carole Bailey. I have also often used the last names of friends in stories, when those names were interesting and/or unusual: Denbroeder, Prestridge, Cash, Bishop, Wingo, Higa, Liggett, Valkenberg, Pennebaker, Zeller, Bassett, McClellan, Fenwick, Boatner, Fountain, Parrott, Stovall, Stegall, Blackledge, LaPinto, Tullos, Crowson, Burnside, Moon, Speed, Fetterman, Lindamood, etc.

Other writers, other approaches

All this is, of course, nothing new. Fiction writers use real names for fictional characters a lot, and it might be worth noting that Nelson DeMille--one of my all-time favorite authors--has taken that practice a step farther. In the Acknowledgments section of most of his novels, DeMille mentions those people who have made generous contributions to charities in return for his using their names as characters in the book.

My favorite memory of this kind of thing is of something my SleuthSayers colleague Rob Lopresti once did in "Shanks Commences," a story which appeared in (and on the cover of) the May 2012 issue of AHMM. At the time that Rob created that story, he and I were among seven writers who did weekly columns for the Criminal Brief mystery blog, and he chose to put all of us into the story. I still remember how much fun it was to read it--and how pleased I was to find that I didn't turn out to be the murderer. Rob talks about that story here.

How about you?

The obvious question is, have any of you tried using real people's names in your stories or novels, either as themselves or as characters? I know some writers are afraid that might backfire, but I think the chances are slim. As with statements about real places or real companies or real products, you'll get into trouble only if you say bad things about them, and if the mentioned characters are friends of yours, they'll almost certainly be pleased. If they're not pleased--well, maybe that's a good way to find out who your friends really are.

According to one of my writing buddies, part of the fun of being a fiction writer is being able to look at someone and say, "Be nice to me. If you're not I'll put you in a story and kill you off."

Fair warning …


  1. Lovely piece, John. Thanks for mentioning my story. I was so pleased when I found a way to name my killer without libeling anyone likely to sue!

    At least once one of these connections bugged me. In Elmore Leonard's Up In Honey's Room he named a Nazi Otto Penzler. Perfectly reasonable German name, but we all know someone by that name.

    My sister, novelist Diane Chamberlain, sometimes auctions a name-appearance for charity and once the winner was a man with a Japanese name. Problem was her book was set in North Carolina during World War II. She found a way to make it a compelling part of the plot, of course.

  2. A number of famous novelists have like Rob's sister, sold off character names, usually for charities.

    I would find that hard- you don't want a friend to be the victim or, even less, the perpetrator- but I guess it would be an incentive to have lots of red herrings and possible suspects.

  3. At a Burlington Humane Society gala this Spring, they auctioned off a character name for my next novel. I am happy to report that Wolfgang the Pug has a co-starring role in my WIP.
    A few years back, I had a woman contact me who was an ardent fan of my Rowena time travel series. She was 'that fan, at the right time' that I needed to remind myself why I was doing this (that is, writing for readers instead of for cash.) She did wonder for my ego. I asked if she would like to be in my next Rowena novel, and she was thrilled. I gave her a very nice part. I think that's the key. If you are going to use someone's name in a novel, and you like the person, make sure it is a person they wouldn't mind their name attached to.
    Or be evil, and do your worst :)

  4. I more often use personalities (father, brother, friends) without always realizing it, but I spend time 'listening' how a name sounds, feels, and what it means. But I often use partial names of people I know. And for a bad guy, I used the office back-stabber's name reversed. His mother would have been so proud.

  5. I scrambled-up the names of a few of my old college buddies for use in a few stories, (not all of them published!)And I had a reference to a college's library as "The Lopresti Library" which didn't make it to the final published draft. (Alas!)

  6. Jeff, that was a (Janice) Law Library, wasn't it? I hear the place is a real warren.

  7. Just got back home from Bouchercon--many thanks to all of you for the comments!!

    Rob, I remember Leonard's use of Otto's name in that book. I just assumed it was sort of an "in joke"--but it did throw me out of the story a bit, when I encountered it. All of a sudden I found myself thinking about the writer instead of about the writing, which is something Leonard probably should've mentioned in those famous rules of his.

    Janice, you're right, the trick is never to say anything bad about them or have terrible things happen to them. (Unless you're sure they wouldn't mind.)

    Melodie, I doubt I'll ever be famous enough for anyone to want to auction off my characters' names. And congrats to Wolfgang.

    Leigh, I like that approach!!

    Jeff, I'd like to reserve a place for my name in one of your upcoming stories, if you have room. And if it gets published, so much the better!

  8. Leigh; "Janice Law Library?" Good one! John, I'll consider the reservation made!

  9. I was once a character in one of Thomas F. Monteleone's science fiction novels. I died a hero.

    And I have, on occasion, used the names of other writers in my stories.

  10. Jeff, I'm holding you to that promise.

    Michael, I'm impressed! Glad you didn't turn out to be an ewok or a klingon. (By the way, I sure enjoyed the time we spent together at B'con last week!)

    After this discussion, and finding out that so many writers do this name-inclusion thing, I think I'm going to do it even more often.

  11. I enjoyed your piece, John. (I'm catching up after Bouchercon, too.) I once named a lawyer in an AHMM story after a friend who's a lawyer. My friend had recently lost a significant amount of weight, so I described the lawyer as "trim." Of course, that was the one detail my friend seized upon when she read the story. "You called me 'trim'! Thank you so much!" she said. (I also made the lawyer smart, but my friend didn't care about that. She's always been smart.)

  12. Bonnie--that's too funny!!! Gotta remember that: use the name of someone you know, and make him/her pretty/handsome/slim. Those are obviously the important things in life.


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