Monday, September 20, 2010

No, Really. It's Fiction.

by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My mother was so mad at me. She was reading Face Time, the second Charlotte McNally mystery. She called me, nothing unusual. But it was her tone that was unusual. “I’m reading—your book,” she said. Her tone was more like: “I’m holding—a bug.”

Mom is terrific. She’s almost 80, and is absolutely beautiful. An artist, a reader, a wonderful intellect. (She doesn’t have a computer, so she’s not reading this.) I’m her oldest daughter, and any psychologist will tell you that can cause some friction.

So anyway. I had hoped to chat with her a bit, prepare her, before she started Face Time. But, things happened and life got in the way. Why is Mom mad? She thinks I’ve “used her for art.”

It’s true: Charlie McNally’s mother in Face Time is a bit—persnickety. She’s opinionated. She thinks, for instance, that Charlotte might want to give up her very successful 20-year TV career to marry some tycoon and become a tycoon wife.

No matter that Charlie is happy with the personal life (pretty happy, at least, for a 46-year-old single woman who is married to her job) and happy with her professional life (pretty happy, at least, even though she’s fearful she’s going to be replaced by someone younger). Mom also thinks Charlotte (she refuses to call her Charlie, saying, “nicknames are for stuffed animals and men who play sports”) might want to visit the plastic surgeon for some face time of her own.

Now Mrs. McNally is not, I repeat, not, my mother. But in these days of controversy over whether books that are purported to be memoirs are actually true—I find myself fighting to convince her that my book is truly fiction.

It’s ALL MADE UP, I tell her. Yes, Charlie has a Mom, and I have a Mom. But I’m not Charlie and she’s not you.

Silence on the other end of the phone.

“Of course it’s me, dear,” she finally says. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

I’ve worked in television for thirty years. And yes, I watched Mary Tyler Moore, and did indeed recognize some Ted Baxter qualities in a few anchor people (men AND women) I’ve known over he years. And Murphy Brown, too. The smart but aging investigative reporter Murphy could be Charlie McNally’s older sister. But those characters, though based on qualities real people in newsrooms may have, are fictional. Made up.

Digression: You know those ‘something meets something’ descriptions authors are supposed to come up with for their books? (Like you’re supposed to say: “My book is about a crime-fighting but fashionable deep-sea fishergirl—sort of Jaws meets The Devil Wears Prada.”) Because of the success of the secret-code element of The Da Vinci Code, I wanted to characterize Prime Time, my first Charlie book, as “Dan Brown meets Murphy Brown.” A bigwig in the publishing biz told me that was no good--because one knows who Murphy Brown is. Oh. Dear.

Anyway. Then there’s the husband situation. My dear Jonathan, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, is nothing like, looks nothing like, behaves nothing like, the possible love interests in the books. Still. He can’t bear to read the “mushy parts” and can’t bear to hear bout what Charlie does or even thinks about, when it comes to men.

IT’S ALL MADE UP, I tell him. There have to be men involved, this is romantic suspense. But Charlie’s men are not you.

Silence. “Of course they are,” he says. “Or even worse, old boyfriends. And I don’t want to read about that.”

And finally, there’s the “Is Charlie McNally you” question. And I must admit that one stops me. Yes, Charlie’s an investigative reporter for a Boston TV station. And I am, too. And it would be silly to waste thirty years of TV experience—that’s what (I hope) make Charlie’s life seem authentic. But she’s younger. More confident. And fictional. And yes, okay, things that happen to Charlie have happened to me--in a—way. But she can say things I could never say, reveal things I could never reveal, and I must say, I’ve never actually been in the life-threateningly frightening situations Charlie has. Chased? Yes. Threatened? Yes. Punched? Almost. That stopped when I said to my photographer: “make sure you’re rolling on this.”
It’s hard for the bad guys to get away with it if their assault is caught on camera.

And, like Charlie does in AIR TIME, I've wired myself with a hidden camera, put on a disguise, and gone undercover. All to get a good story. But my TV stories, of course, are true.

Anyway. So I’m wondering, do any of you have a problem with this? Do people “recognize” themselves in your books—and you have to convince them it’s a fictional character they’re recognizing? Would you “use” someone for “art”?

Or if you’re a reader, do you assume fictional characters are real people just put on paper?

And as it turns out—as Mom will find out if she’ll just get to the end of the book—Face Time is not only a mystery, and a romance, but kind of a love story between mothers and daughters. My editor said she had tears in her eyes at the end. One reviewer told me she cried. (Which is odd, you have to admit, in a murder mystery.)

Yes, as authors we take elements of reality. Then we polish, and tweak, and exaggerate, and accessorize. But the fun is making up something completely new. Creating a new world. New characters and new relationships. And it’s ALL MADE UP.

Okay, Mom?

Do you have a contentious relationship with your mother? (or daughter?) Do you understand each other?

PRIZES!--A copy of the TIME book of your choice to four lucky commenters!
Award-winning investigative reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan is on the air at Boston's NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 26 EMMYs, Hank’s won dozens of other journalism honors. She's been a radio reporter, a legislative aide in the United States Senate and an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone Magazine working with Hunter S. Thompson.

Her first mystery, the best-selling PRIME TIME, won the Agatha for Best First Novel. It was also was a double RITA nominee for Best First Book and Best Romantic Suspense Novel, and a Reviewers' Choice Award Winner. FACE TIME and AIR TIME are IMBA bestsellers, and AIR TIME was nominated for the AGATHA Award for Best Novel of 2009 and is now an Anthony Nominee for Best Paperback Original. (Of AIR TIME, Sue Grafton says: "This is first-class entertainment.") DRIVE TIME, February 2010 from MIRA Books, just earned a starred review from Library Journal saying it “puts Ryan in a league with Lisa Scottoline.”

Hank's short story "On The House" won the AGATHA for Best Short Story of 2009, and is now an Anthony nominee and a Macavity nominee.

Hank is on the New England Board of Sisters in Crime and the national board of Mystery Writers of America. Her website is

She and her husband, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, live near Boston.


  1. My mother once rang me totally distraught. She was troubled by the stories in The X-Files. "How could the FBI keep this stuff from us?" she asks. "Uh mom ... you know it's all made up right?" "Really?" was her response. *sigh*

  2. Hank, Thanks for the wonderful laugh this morning! When my first book came out, my sister insisted she was one of the secondary characters. When I told her, "No, that isn't you," she replied, "But she makes up words like I do." Silence. "Okay, so maybe I got that trait from you, but the character isn't YOU." I know she never believed me:)

    I've always wanted to read your books so I'd love to win one!

  3. In the 80's a waitress at my favorite lunch place was telling all her favorite customers she would be gone for a week on her first cruise. One elderly lady told her she would watch for her on that week's episode of "Love Boat". That still cracks me up.

    I'm also an oldest daughter. No matter what I would write about my mother would take it personally. If I wrote an autobiography she'd completely disown me. The story I want to write will/would be so upsetting to her, if it actually got published it would have to be under a pseudonym. This is a big issue for me. My childhood was chockful of material for endless numbers of stories.

  4. Oh, Hank, this is so funny. And so true! In my first book, I stole people from my real life and made up the things that happened to them. So, lots of people recognized themselves (or thought they did) which was fine. Thankfully, my ex-husband (and his family) didn't read it that closely. But, the funniest was the "love interest"--I completely made him up (sort of my dream man). Fast forward a few years and I meet the mad who will become my husband . . . and he's very much like the fictional man I created. So much so that all our friends think I based it on him. I just smile and say I wrote him and then he came true.

  5. What a fab Monday morning post, Hank! When I wrote my Debutante Dropout Mysteries, I constantly had readers ask if my protag's mother (Cissy, the Chanel-wearing socialite with a heart of platinum) was based on my mom. "Absolutely not!" I'd assure them, and I meant it. Cissy was nothing like my mom, not in the way she dressed, the way she spoke, the way she lived, or so I thought. Until sometime after, when I wasn't writing those books anymore, and I realized that, at the core, Cissy and my mother had a lot in common. They didn't mince words, expected a lot (sometimes TOO much) from their daughters, and would do anything to protect the ones they love. I know I didn't base Cissy on my mom, not consciously; but subconsciously, somehow, a smidge of my mother snuck in. More recently, my mom-in-law thought the hockey-playing love interest of one of my Cougars was based on my husband (who happens to play hockey, just not professionally like the dude in the book). I was about to insist that Evan isn't Ed (because he's not), but then I decided, "Aw, what does it hurt for her to believe it?" So I let it slide. ;-)

  6. My neighbors keep ribbing my husband that he's the hero in my books.

    Um... I don't see a merman's tail on Hubs... :)

  7. As a writer, I know from personal experience the main character is not the author, but when I read a novel, especially when it's in the first-person, I find myself thinking, "This is the author! Especially if I know them personally. I can hear their voices in my head.

  8. Daz, that's completely hilarious. SO funny!

  9. Hank--great post! Recently a friend read a chapter and gave me that knowing smile and said, "I see you here." Like-this IS you. I reminded her it's fiction, NOT me. Then she pinpoints, um, language--saying her mom would see this--like her mom would think I said this and would not approve! Again, I said, "It's not me, it's the character!" Worse, my oldest son recently said something like, "That romance stuff is just your fantasy --what you women wish for." *Sigh.* This in front of my dh who announces--Yes, it's all about him--although he's never read anything of mine since he's afraid he won't like it. (Yes, this is true.) I've learned --it's probably best this way.

    So it cracked me up when your dh said something similiar--doesn't want to read it--and it might even be old boyfriends. LOL.

    Of course we pluck snippets from our life, and they end up in our work sometimes when we don't even realize it, but it's not OUR life story. We can remind others all day long, but it's like they know the real secret and won't go for it. This will probably never change. What a fun post!

  10. Oh, Hank, I love this post!! After According to Jane came out, I got an email from an ex-boyfriend, who's still a friend. "Um, Marilyn, am I..uh, in this book?" he wrote. "There's this one character..." Which led to a long and pretty funny conversation where I had to explain that, since I spent the whole novel detailing different types of relationships, I included little snippets from some of mine, things my friends told me about theirs, books/films, and so on -- so, really, every character was a blend of many traits from multiple sources, etc., etc. Still not sure he believes me :).

  11. LOL! Oh, I enjoyed your made me laugh. When my novel launched I got a ton of emails and some of them were to inquire if my mother was "crazy" like Camille. I mean they came right out and asked! When I replied no, my mother (now deceased) was not crazy, some of them seemed disappointed. Ha!

  12. My mother thinks the same thing about every mother in my books. Except, now that I think about it, I've started killing off the mothers . . . my last 4 heroine's had mothers who died before the story started. Huh.

  13. Hey all--got sent out on a story and just got back. Having a very very crazy newsday.

    Anyway! Yes, it's pretty interesting. In my next book, with a DIFFERENT heroine, her mother is dead. I'm really nervous about that! Will my real mother, (who is, as you know, not Mrs. McNally), decide she's now the mother who I've decided to kill off? Sheesh.

    And even my oh-so-down to earth father said--you know honey, I was never a cub reporter. I'm like--I KNOW. *Charlie's* father was once a cub reporter. SIgh.

    Lovely seeing you all!

  14. Hysterical! My parents are convinced they are the parents in my debut novel, but other than sharing a puzzling fondness for Ikea's low-priced breakfasts, there's no real similarity.

  15. Hi Hank... (waving..)

    This post is so funny. My husband at first said "Don't write about us..." Now, that I'm making some money with short stories, he's suggesting topics... including the how we met story.


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  17. Thanks everyone! We'll announce winners tomorrow!

  18. Hank! I just love this post-- so completely hilarious. The mother and I have had the same conversations!!!

  19. I really like this page, you have posted cool things. I point the container with suction cup, it's quite an idea.