Yesterday, I received the eeriest e-mail from a reader writing to let me know that the small-town tragedy involving high school students I wrote about in a book I called HEAD ON had to some extent played out in real life recently, shattering families and putting one of those involved into extended rehab, much as was the heroine of my story. The reader also noticed some a number of surprising similarities between his town and my fictional locale, from its approximate location, I'm sure, to the fact that my version bore the name of a leading local senior citizen.
They didn't surprise me, however, as the moment I saw the name of his town, I recognized it as my "model." I'd walked and photographed its brick streets, swiped one of its free weekly newspaper, and generally used it for inspiration after an author friend -- knowing the story and setting I had in mind -- offered to show me around. I didn't want to use the actual town for my book, just as inspiration. That way I get to rearrange things as I need to for the story's good, make unflattering comments about local officials (who are entirely fictional) and the character who owns the mortuary without insulting real folks (important when you're dealing with very small towns) and generally make up details because I think they're cool. So I gave my version a name, but it never felt quite "true" to me.
Later, when I was nearly through the draft, I flipped through my research materials, including the free paper. While skimming through an article naming attendees of a Fourth of July celebration. One first name jumped out at me, an unusual old name that seemed to embody the small-town's spirit and sounded a little like the name of the real place.
So I appropriated the name and completed my story, which took on such a life of its own, I never imagined that its roots might be showing. Which just goes to show that even when you go out of way to disguise a place or person or what have you, somehow the similarity can leach through the veneer and give the story a strange sense of verisimilitude.
On a related note, I was deeply saddened, even chilled, to hear of the young lives lost in a terrible collision, as so many young lives are tragically lost each year. My heart goes out to survivors and the families of those lost, along with the fervent wish for peace and healing.