Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dear Advice Lady

I read a “Dear Abby” letter that hit close to home for me as a writer. For the record, I don’t always subscribe to her advice (nor that of the self-proclaimed Goddess of Love, Amy Alcorn), but this one letter made me think “Been there, dealt with that.”

It was from a woman who writes romance novels as a hobby and side business. (Hmm, sounding familiar yet? Read on). She pointed out that she’s happily married to the man of her dreams. It seems that her husband becomes sullen and irritated after reading depictions of the men in her stories, believing that they’re based on an actual person or former boyfriend, even though she insists that they aren’t.

Dearest Abby’s advice was that if the man of her dreams couldn’t accept her explanation, he should stop reading her books. Gee, why didn’t I think of that?

This brought back a few flashbacks for me, and possibly for some of you. Like many of us, I have recited the “This is a work of fiction…” speech so many times I don’t have to be fully awake to launch into it. Some people ignore the disclaimer we all put after the title page, and that’s the danger of your friends and family reading your books. They’re all convinced that you used a mutual acquaintance or relative as the basis for a character. I don’t mind answering that question, but when they ask if any of the intimate scenes were based on personal experience, I merely smile and keep my mouth shut.

I’ve gotten so cautious that in one of my crime thrillers, I went one better. The publisher included the usual warning, but I added one of my own. I stated that while the location of the story was real, the characters, places and events I depicted were not intended to resemble an actual person or occurrence. I had a good reason for taking this extra step: the story had my hero going up against the Mafia. I didn’t want to answer my door in the middle of the night and find two guys inviting me to go for a ride.

The Dear Abby letter reminded me of an anecdote I read about Ian Fleming. His James Bond adventures were very popular in the 1950’s but apparently his wife was a literary snob who didn’t think much of her husband’s work. She was quoted as saying “I wouldn’t soil my hands on that filthy rubbish.” This likely explains why Fleming had a mistress. I have a friend who has been successful with his erotic fiction, but his wife also refuses to acknowledge or talk about it, even though it supplements his retirement income.

This falls into the same deathtrap we all try to avoid regarding content. There is currently no formal rating system for books like there is for movies and TV shows, but as writers we should be responsible enough to alert readers if our books contain adult material. This is not only considerate, it’s good business. I don’t want to lose potential customers because one reader became offended and told her friends not to buy my stuff because I write “dirty books.”

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had to answer this dreaded question from my sig other. She’s read every one of my books and while she may have picked up on a personality trait or physical characteristic, she’s never asked me about it. If she did, I’d be honest —“Why no, of course not, honey! You know what an active imagination writers have.” If that didn’t work, I suppose I could always fall back on poetic license and hope for the best.

It reminds me of the feud between Mario Puzo and Frank Sinatra over “The Godfather.” It was widely assumed that the character of Johnny Fontaine, a mobbed-up pop singer, was based on Sinatra’s life and career. Naturally Puzo denied it, saying it was a composite of several entertainers, but Sinatra refused to believe it. (And I thought I was overly sensitive!). The whole thing might have died down had it not been for Sinatra’s pal Dean Martin. When asked about it during an interview, Martin gave a wink, a smile and said “One never knows, does one?”

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author of romantic mystery/thrillers and contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.


jean hart stewart said...

You're talking about a real problem. I think a lot of my acquaintances think I've led a a double life. Fortunately my husband thought it all very funny.

Fiona McGier said...

Yeah, does everyone assume Stephen King commits the kinds of murders he describes in his books? Or that he has paranormal experiences regularly? No? Why not...that's what he writes about!

I agree with you, Tim, that when people ask if any scenes are based on reality, best defense is just to smile. Let them guess, right? They're just jealous that their imaginations don't amuse them the way ours do!