Writing Fiction from Real Life
By Christi DaughertyMarch 9, 2020
Late on the night of May 29, 1997, a talented young musician named Jeff Buckley walked into a tributary channel of the Mississippi River near Memphis, and disappeared.
At the time, his star was in the ascendancy—his first album had received widespread acclaim. He was 30 years old, dark-haired and beautiful, with a voice that soared high enough to pierce your soul. His cover of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, was breaking hearts on college campuses around the world. His unpredictable live performances were already legendary.
In the immediate hours after his disappearance, reporting on the incident was hazy and confused. No one had been with him except for a member of his band who insisted he’d simply walked into the river holding his guitar. And then he didn’t come back.
The police withheld judgment on whether or not a crime had occurred while a search was underway. As days passed without any sign of him, rumors spread. He was spotted in New Orleans. In Los Angeles. In Boston. He was on the run. He’d been murdered.
At the time, I was a young reporter working in New Orleans, a few hundred miles downriver from where he disappeared. Like everyone else my age, I was absorbed in the mystery. It seemed impossible that he could have just walked into the river. It didn’t make sense.
A week later, his body was found in the water a few miles away from where he’d disappeared. Police said there was no sign of foul play. It wasn’t a hoax. He was really gone.
When I sat down to write Revolver Road, the third book in my Harper McClain mysteries series, I found myself thinking about that week and the pressing, almost suffocating suspense of it. When I sketched out the plot, I wrote about a young musician named Xavier Rayne who disappears from his home outside Savannah, Georgia, as a storm rolls in off the Atlantic. Only in my version, foul play is definitely involved.
Most of my books have been inspired in some way by real life. The Echo Killing series was originally inspired by my years spent working as a crime reporter at newspapers in Savannah, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. I like to take a bit of reality and then twist it around until it becomes something new and dangerous.
I am hardly the first crime writer to be inspired by real-life, of course. Many books have their basis in a moment that really happened, which an author then grabbed and spun out into an entirely alternate reality. One even more dramatic and absorbing than the original.
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Christie’s famous tale of the kidnapping and murder of three-year-old Daisy Armstrong was published two years after the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old child. The case dominated the headlines while she was writing.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Booker Award-winning novel was inspired by the real attempted assassination of reggae musician Bob Marley in 1976, when seven men raised Marley’s house in Jamaica, shooting him, his wife, and several members of his band.
Psycho by Robert Bloch
The movie is more famous than the book, but the book started it all. The twisted murderer Norman Bates is based on real murderer and ‘body snatcher,’ Ed Gein. Known as the Butcher of Plainfield, or the Plainfield Ghoul, Gein confessed to killing two women in Wisconsin in the 1950s. His crimes became famous after police discovered he had exhumed corpses from local graveyards and made objects and keepsakes from the bones and teeth.
Jaws by Peter Benchley
The tale of a great white shark menacing a coastal community and leaving death was inspired by the New Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1917. Over twelve days, five people were attacked by sharks—only one survived. Ship captains reported seeing extremely large sharks in the water off the coast. The attacks fascinated the nation.
The Shining by Stephen King
King’s gripping tale about the haunted Overlook Hotel is one of my favorite ghost stories. It was inspired by a single night in 1973, when King and his wife stayed at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado. The two of them were the only guests in the sprawling, mountain-top inn, then run-down and in some disrepair. During the night, King heard children playing in the empty hallways, even though no children were there. Later, he dreamed of his own son, running down a long, empty hotel corridor, looking over his shoulder, and screaming. And from that came the idea for one of the scariest books I know.
About Revolver Road by Christi Daugherty:
Even in the chill of February, no place touches Harper McClain’s heart like Savannah. She should be walking beneath the historic city’s towering oaks, surrounded by graceful mansions. Instead, she’s hiding miles away on Tybee Island after a mysterious voice on the phone warned her that someone wanted her dead. The call was too specific to ignore. The caller knew everything about her. But that was months ago, and she’s getting tired of being scared.
Her only escape is her work at the newspaper, where the hottest story in town is the disappearance of Xavier Rayne. The singer had a hit album on his hands, and was about to go on tour, but then he walked out of his beachfront home and vanished. The police believe he drowned, but Harper suspects his disappearance may be more ominous than that. Something doesn’t feel right about it.
His bandmates and actress girlfriend say he’s run away before. They expect him to come home. Until a body washes up with two bullet holes in it. Now everyone in Rayne’s life is a suspect. As Harper digs deeper into the case, though, the threats against her own life return. The phone call she received was very real. A killer from her past is coming for her.
Now she must solve two murders, or end up dying on Revolver Road…
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