Welcome our first guest blogger of fall, David Hagerty, who tells us about how real life events inspire his stories…
True events have inspired most of my work, including all three novels in my Duncan Cochrane mystery series about an Illinois governor whose daughter is murdered. For me, writing from real life offers both inspiration and opportunity, a chance to take the world and bend it to my own wishes. However, it took practice for me to learn how to transform reality.
My initial attempts failed, in large part because I couldn’t depart from the truth. The first time I tried was after the murder of my next door neighbor. I’d been working as a newspaper reporter in the same NorCal town as the crime, and I covered it from discovery until conviction. Thus, I had plenty of material, yet I found myself hamstrung by the facts. The story that captivated me in real life did not translate well into narrative form.
Over time, I read a number of other books as models. Two of my favorites were Bel Canto, Ann Patchett’s retelling of a hostage taking in a Peruvian embassy, and The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s classic mystery set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Both presented a convincing verisimilitude without bogging down in details. From them I learned that the characters have to carry the story more so than the plot points, and that events must follow logically from the feelings and motives of the people they involve.
Thus, the next time I tried to reimagine a true crime, I picked one that forced me to invent.
The moment I heard the anecdote, I knew I wanted to write about it: a senatorial candidate’s daughter is killed in her bed six weeks before election day. The police are stymied. A terrific opening for a murder mystery.
What’s more, it all occurred in my hometown, a tiny suburb along the lakefront north of Chicago.
From my point of view, what favored my goal was its lack of conclusion. No one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the crime. The police named no suspects publicly. Thus, I had to fictionalize whatever came after the opening chapter.
Nonetheless, I had to make many decisions along the way about what to use, what to change, and what to discard. I wanted the novel to have a historical feel with many details to recreate the time period and the political context. Thus, I included several other politicians and events from the era, including Chicago’s last Machine mayor, Richard J. Daley, the passage of three strikes legislation, and local serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
The rest, I invented, including Duncan’s ambitious wife, rebellious son, traumatized daughter, hipster chief strategist, and a slew of others. I even changed the time period, the political office, and the setting, in part because it gave me more freedom to invent. Thus, They Tell Me You Are Wicked bears only a vague resemblance to its model.
For me, these decisions became much easier when I refined the focus of the books to a single theme: the intersection of crime and politics. I wanted to write a drama that speculated what would happen if a man bent on revenge could use the state as his vehicle.
To my mind, that’s the key: identify what captivates you about the story and focus on that. To illustrate the principles I followed, I’ll use a famous tale that’s been told and recast many times of late: the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
That case included a variety of themes that cast it as the crime of the century—wealth, fame, beauty, sex, jealousy, domestic violence, police corruption, racism—almost too many to depict in a single work.
If I were to write that story, I would focus on only one or two elements that interested me the most, then let this decision dictate my other choices.
For example, the true event offered many fascinating characters, most of whom require no identification: Johnny Cochrane, Marsha Clark, Mark Fuhrman, Kato Kalin. However, only two people are essential to the story (I believe): O.J. and Nicole Brown. For the rest, I would include or exclude them based on the theme I chose. If I were interested in civil rights, I would want to use Cochrane and Fuhrman. If I were writing from a feminist perspective, then Clark would be more compelling. If I were writing about fame, I may want to focus on Kalin or Ron Goldman.
Likewise, the theme would dictate my setting. For celebrity culture and police brutality, it’s hard to top L.A. For many other themes, I could choose any city I wished.
With so many plot points from the original story—the bloody glove, the Bronco chase, the protracted trial, the public outcry after the verdicts—I would need to condense the story to a more manageable format, maybe just the court case.
Regardless of my interest, unless I wanted to write an epic, some editing would be required.However, these choices are what make a story your own.
A Chicago native, David Hagerty writes about the politics and crime that made the Second City infamous.
His series stars Duncan Cochrane, an ambitious businessman turned gubernatorial candidate whose daughter is murdered six weeks before the election. As the police investigation follows a series of false leads, Duncan uses his grief to woo voters and his growing political clout to search for the killer.
They Tell Me You Are Wicked is a political thriller and a murder mystery by Evolved Press.
The second book in the series, They Tell Me You Are Crooked, follows a series of sniper killings in Chicago’s most infamous public housing complex and a blackmail plot that could derail Duncan’s career.
In book three, They Tell Me You Are Brutal, a saboteur is poisoning pain medications. Meanwhile, Duncan’s son can’t keep the family secret to himself, putting them all at risk of ruin. Readers describe the series as “full of twists and turns,” “suspenseful,” and “hard to put down.” A prequel to the series, Chicago Style, appears in Low Down Dirty Vote, an anthology of political crime fiction. In addition to his novels, David also writes short stories, including four published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and two published by Big Pulp. One of these, The Pot Hunters, was nominated for a Derringer Award in 2013.
Check out David’s website at http://davidhagerty.net/