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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Should You Use Real Life Tragedies in Your Writing?

by Rosie Genova

I didn’t grow up at the Jersey shore, but I’ve had a one-sided love affair with it my whole life, and it seemed natural to set my books there. While the seaside town in my mystery series is fictional, there are references to real places like Ocean Grove and the Seaside boardwalk to help ground the books in reality. But as I built my fictional world, I didn’t take into account another reality of shore life—hurricanes.

In October 2012, I was wrapping up the manuscript for the first book in the series, Murder and Marinara, just as Hurricane Sandy was making its way up the eastern seaboard. I hit send on October 29, only hours before I lost power for eight days. As the weather worsened, I was feeling that uneasy excitement that comes with a threatening storm. And I couldn’t help but think about how I might work a hurricane into my books. It was a perfect plot device, and my writer’s imagination teemed with fictional scenarios that involved a hurricane.

But once the wind died down,  the reality of Sandy struck with as much devastation as the storm itself. The loss of life and destruction of property in my home state were beyond expectation, and the shore communities were especially hard hit. Thousands were left homeless, businesses were destroyed, and numberless icons of the Jersey shore boardwalks and beaches were lost forever. What happened to my beloved coastline wasn’t the stuff of fiction; it was all too real.

The Seaside Heights boardwalk, its pier ripped away by Hurricane Sandy.
The wreckage of the roller coaster remained in the ocean for months.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
During revisions on the book, I talked with my editor about whether I should include the storm. In some ways, it seemed disingenuous not to mention such an all-encompassing event. In the end, however, we decided to leave it out. Cozy mysteries are meant to provide escape, and give readers a sense of comfort and closure when the culprit is caught and the cozy world is restored. This culprit—a  superstorm of historic proportions—had wreaked a kind of havoc that can’t be resolved in 80,000 words.

So when it came time for the cover conference, I suggested an image that specifically evoked those comforting, pre-storm memories of the Jersey shore.  The icon of the Ferris wheel reminded me of days on the boardwalk, of salt water taffy and games of chance, of long ago summers that felt never-ending. And it’s the one image on my cover that everyone remarks upon.

Ferris wheel detail from cover of 
Murder and Marinara
But these days, that Ferris wheel brings to mind another image—the now iconic picture of Seaside Height’s bent and twisted roller coaster, claimed by the ocean during the storm.

At this year’s Malice Domestic conference, I was lucky enough to meet Louise Penny, the Canadian author of the Inspector Gamache series. After exchanging cards, she praised my book’s cover art; in the next breath, she asked if I had addressed the hurricane in my story. Could anyone look at that Ferris wheel, she asked, and not think about the image of the wrecked roller coaster?

That question had me second guessing my original decision. My book’s release date also happens to be close to the one year anniversary of the storm, another reason I didn’t want to thread it into the fabric of the story.  I couldn’t appropriate as a plot device an event that had devastated so many lives. But now I realized I couldn’t ignore it, either.

And then Louise offered a suggestion that turned out to be the perfect solution:  an author’s note. At the end of my story, after the murderer is apprehended and all is well for my characters, I offer a short, simple explanation of why there is no mention of the storm.  In another book perhaps, a hurricane might figure into the story, but I remain conflicted about the intrusion of such a harsh reality into my fiction.

The 2013 Jersey shore season is already underway here. A number of our boardwalks have been repaired, and shore communities are busy with the rebuilding of homes and businesses. The wreckage of the roller coaster is gone, and a series of television commercials proclaims, “We’re stronger than the storm.”  And while that may be true, many of us in New Jersey still mourn for those pre-hurricane days, to a time when the icons of our beach towns stood for magical innocence and not senseless destruction.

Those are the times I try to evoke in my books. In my stories, none of the beach has been washed away. The boardwalk businesses are thriving, and everybody in town has a home. And that old roller coaster is still on its track, speeding through the night to the sound of the waves.

There is still much work to be done in Jersey shore communities. Please visit Restore the Shore to see how you might help.

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier.


Amy Sue Nathan said...

Lovely post. I grew up in Philadelphia, spending summers "down the shore" in South Jersey—Long Beach Island, Margate, Ventnor, Cape May... And I think your book is a tribute to the spirit of the shore. Kudos!

Rosie said...

Thanks, Amy! I hope that spirit shines through for readers.

Mirka Breen said...

Brava, for the post and the book.

Yes, I think fiction that blends reality in,so long as this is clearly stated somewhere, perhaps in an Author Note or a prologue, is powerful.

Rosie said...

Thanks, Mirka. It was a tough call. We toyed with the idea of having the hurricane in the past somehow, but that would imply all the changes the storm wrought. And wouldn't that mean I'd have to refer to it in some way?

So for now, at least, the fictional world is untouched.

Sarah P said...

Wide scale tragedy can briefly interrupt our understanding of fiction, can it not? After 9/11 I remember thinking that I would never read another thriller. Because I'd just lived something much more powerful. But the human heart goes on, seeking its stories.

Shelley said...

The cover makes me me think Jersey Strong. And blue skies ahead.

Irene said...

During WWII, many of the movies completely left out the fighting and destruction of the war, or even mentioning soldiers, because people lived with the horror every day. These movies were meant as escapes, so a good Jersey Shore story can do the same...the good times will come again, and soon. Maybe in a future book you can mention the resurrection. Thanks!

Rosie said...

Sarah, after 9/11 I curled up in bed with Jane Austen novels every night for months. I couldn't bear to read anything else.

Shelley, we're a tough little state. And I'm looking forward to those blue skies!

Rosie said...

So true,Irene! And I know you remember the shore as I do.