07 November 2016

Fact or Fiction?

Sleuthsayers is delighted to welcome our newest member, Steve Liskow, an award-winning writer who has been a finalist for both the Shamus and the Edgar and has taken home the Black Orchid Prize. His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the MWA anthology edited by Lee Child, and in Level Best Books’ anthologies.

A retired high school English teacher, Steve experienced what he terms a “horrible experience” with a traditional house. “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty,” Steve says.

In addition to his writing, Steve is a keen guitar player with a special passion for early blues. A number of his mystery titles reflect his musical enthusiasms, including his newest, featuring Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here and the earlier novels, The Kids Are All Right and Cherry Bomb.

In addition to writing, Steve does editing and conducts fiction workshops. Check out his fine web site, www.SteveLiskow.com and his October 1st appearance on the Jungle Red Writers blog site, where he writes about music and his writing.

Welcome aboard, Steve!

— Janice Law

by Steve Liskow

First of all, let me thank Rob, Leigh, Janice and everyone else for making me feel so welcome here. I hope I don't embarrass them too much.

When I'm conducting a writing workshop or a signing, people often ask me where I get my ideas. I often start with an idea generated by a real event, but I seldom stay with that. Laura Lippman cites real incidents as the seed for several of her novels, including What the Dead Know and After I'm Gone. She stresses that once the original idea occurs, practically everything else changes.

Alafair Burke's The Ex uses a back-story that reminds me of Adam Lanza, who invaded a Connecticut elementary school in 2012 and killed twenty-six teachers and first-graders. Many other writers have used similar starting points, and there's a cottage industry in stories involving fictionalized visions of Jack the Ripper. My own novel Run Straight Down was inspired by teaching in an inner-city high school when one of my students was killed by a rival gang. Nothing in that novel resembles the real story. I even changed the name of the town.


I don't like to remember that the boy was shot directly below my classroom window. Many other people who were involved are still alive, and examining the case would be a horrible intrusion into their lives, too. In fact, when I was still considering writing the novel, I met attorney-turned-novelist William Landay at a conference, and as soon as he knew that people involved in the case still lived in the area, he said, "Fictionalize it." End of discussion.

Most horrific crimes don't shed much light on the human condition anyway. By and large, the perpetrators are bad people who have been in trouble because of their won stupidity or addiction or some other pathology for most of their lives. Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, had been identified as unstable for years and his parents had not heeded warnings. The killer in the Cheshire (CT) home invasion in 2007 were career criminals who had spent major portions of their lives in jail, rehab, or both. Six people died in the Donna Lee Bakery massacre (New Britain, CT, 1974) because the killers planned to rob a liquor store, but the owner felt ill and closed early. The bakery was next door. Again, through my teaching job, I had a two-degree connection to three of those six victims...and the owner of the liquor store was the father of one of my students.

The only case I know that became a major literary event involves Amy Archer-Gilligan, who ran a nursing home about twenty miles from where I live now. She poisoned several residents and was eventually acquitted of murder by reason of insanity. Her story became the basis of the famous play Arsenic and Old Lace, which keeps nothing of the original story except the arsenic.

The only other "true" stories I think about at all are Capote's In Cold Blood, which is as much fiction as fact but invented an entire genre all by itself, and Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson's research is staggering, but his story-telling skills are even better.

Basically, the problem with writing "true crime" is similar to writing a biography. No matter how much research you do, you're still guessing. WHY did this person do this NOW? Why THIS victim? Why did Mozart produce such beautiful music while we consider Salieri a musical joke and someone else with a similar background can't even whistle? Why could Shakespeare write nearly forty plays, the worst of which is still worth reading, while better-educated people with more leisure time can't fill a page? We don't know.

Facts are messy and may not prove anything, but when we move them around and sand down rough edges, we can create the characters and events that develop a logical or emotional point. That's why mysteries or crime fiction or detective stories or whatever you want to call them will always be popular. We want an answer that works. Whether it's Sherlock Holmes or Harry Bosch solving the crime, we want to believe things happen for a reason and the world makes sense.

It's fun to take a real case and fictionalize it to she what "might" have been. The Bobby Fuller killing (Remember "I Fought the Law and the Law Won" in 1966?) is still open 49 years later, but it inspired the film Eddie and the Cruisers. My own novel Blood On the Tracks used a cold case about a dead rock singer, too. I didn't even realize I was channeling the case until one of my guitar-playing friends asked me about it.

So, if you want to talk to me about a "true story," just give me a sentence or two and get out of the way. No, I won't split the profits (Profits, ha-ha-ha) because you may not even recognize your story when I finish with it.

Shakespeare's histories are anything but history, and while Macbeth really existed, little of the story is accurate. King James claimed he was descended from Banquo in the play, but my research never turned up anyone by that name. Shakespeare wrote the play to flatter his king. He was one of the first people to show us that facts can get in the way of a good story.

It's a lesson most writers take to heart.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Steve, when you talk about how we want to believe that things happen for a reason and that the world makes sense. I think that is why we read mysteries for the most part. Though on occasion I, at least, like reading noirs, where things aren't quite tied up so neatly.

    And welcome aboard the SS SleuthSayers.

  2. So glad you are with us!
    You make excellent points about transforming fact to fiction, and you may be happy to know that Salieri's work is getting a second look. He's not Mozart but he wasn't half bad, either. The play, Amadeus, was clearly a case where fact was transformed into distorted fiction, not to mention crime!, the playwright being less scrupulous than you.

  3. Welcome, Steve. I'm still a newbie here. The company is good and the blogs terrific. My first few books were based on cases I worked, especially my CRESCENT CITY KILLS. As for your “I bailed as soon as I could without a financial penalty." You were smart. Although I don't get much respect as an Indie writer (some of my old friends who are still feeding at the traditional publishing teat make disparaging remarks to me in private) but I relish the creative freedom. Look forward to more of your blogs.

  4. Fascinating post, Steve—and welcome! I've actually taught a couple of courses on true crime writing here (lit courses, not writing workshops), and taught it from a couple of angles: both stories that would be classified as true crime (like In Cold Blood) and then fiction and even poetry that was inspired by true crimes. Always fascinating conversations, in each case.

  5. Interesting column, Steve. Welcome to SleuthSayers!

  6. Welcome aboard, Steve. A story I'm writing about for tomorrow was inspired by real-life events, but as with your stories, the nugget may be based in truth, but the tale is all fiction.

  7. Welcome to the nuthouse, Steve. Amadeus was written by Peter Sheaffer. My memory is that on another occasion he was driving somewhere and someone pointed to a barn and said "That's where a teenager blinded half a dozen horses." He said "Don't tell me anymore," and wrote EQUUS.

    Of course, Robert Bloch was inspired to write PSYCHO (the novel) by the Ed Gein murders.

  8. Steve, welcome to the family.

    After 25 years of working the streets, many of the criminals I met, along with their characteristics, plots, scams and stupidity end up in my short stories for AHMM, but you're right, fiction quickly takes over .

  9. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Steve. Interesting post.

  10. Welcome aboard, Steve!
    I think we all hear something, see something, know someone, and then fictionalize the hell out of it. And I agree with Dorothy Sayers who says that the real lure of mysteries is that "in detective stories virtue is always triumphant. They’re the purest literature we have.” Or at least virtue (i.e., justice) is generally triumphant. And we generally get a motive for people's behavior, which is so rare in real life.

  11. Welcome to the club, Steve! Just down the highway from where I live in Wichita, Kansas is Bethel College, and the old President's Residence was often visited by teacher Joseph Kesselring who supposedly modeled the Brewster's living room (in "Arsenic and Old Lace") on that living room---it even has a window seat! One of the president's sisters may have been the inspiration for the aunts in the play!

  12. Jeff, I assume you never take tea there?

  13. Welcome, Steve!

    Those of us living in our urban and suburban homes don’t realize how dangerous inner city schools are. It takes a good teacher, Steve, to fight that heroic battle.

    I’ve been reading the Stieg Larsson The Girl Who… series. If I’m reading it right, in book 2 (Played with Fire), he introduces a real, living person as a character! I’ve never seen this done before outside of, say, a president or other public office holder.

    One of the oddest fictionalizations was in David Morrell’s The Shimmer. He refers to movie stars like “James Deacon”, and I realized he meant James Dean. They weren’t characters in the plot nor living people, and it puzzled me why he fictionalized when he could have used actual history.

  14. Thanks to everyone for all the kind words (and ignoring the two typos I saw after the fact. So much for my deadly accurate transcriptions...

    I'm glad so many people seem to have similar experiences with what the non-writers call "creativity." I should have quoted Neil Gaiman's response to the old "where do you get your ideas?" question. He thinks everyone has about the same number of ideas during the day, but writers, painters, and other artists are trained to recognize them more easily than other people.


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