I once heard a rumor that someone thought they were “in” one of my mystery novels and was really pissed off. Well, it was a bizarre situation because this person wasn’t remotely in my book, not even near my book.
On the other hand, a fan once jokingly said, “You should put me in one of your mysteries” and I walked away smiling. Because this fan–a lifetime academic–had apparently read them all without realizing I’d used a dramatic incident from the fan’s life as a plot point in one of the books. So you could say that fan made a phantom guest appearance. Sort of. Or a contribution?
Take Juno Dromgoole in my Nick Hoffman mystery series. She’s a luscious professor of Canadian Studies who’s beautiful, foul-mouthed, and intemperate. By making her over-the-top, I was playing with the American image of Canadians as quiet and well-mannered. How was she born? She was actually inspired by several different women I met at a mystery conference. But the more I worked on her, the more she became sculpted by the storyline and interactions with other characters and the further away she grew from her “sources.” I don’t even remember anymore who those women were exactly, but I did finally imagine her as having the glamor of Tina Turner at her best.
The smallest thing can inspire me: a look, a gesture, an outfit, a snarky line, an accent–and suddenly a grain of sand is on its way to becoming a pearl. So people do make their way into my fiction, but always through shards, fragments, bits and pieces.
Even if I had wanted to put that angry person mentioned above in my book, I wouldn’t really have been able to. For me, people are just models, no even less: inspiration. Fiction sculpts them into something completely different from what they were until they become unrecognizable. If it’s good, of course.