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CLAIM OF INNOCENCE by Laura Caldwell {Guest Post} & Rafflecopter Giveaway

The Danger of Writing Real People Into Fiction


For years, when a charity asked me to donate something for their silent auction, I’d give signed books or a book club visit. Eventually, I wanted to be more creative. So I offered a chance to get your name in an upcoming Izzy McNeil mystery.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm. The chance to be a fictional character (my choice—you might be a cop from Rogers Park or a neurosurgeon from Taiwan) was raising a lot more funds for charity than a mountain of signed books.  A powerful local politico spent a few thousand to get his daughter’s name in the novels. (She ended up a national NBC correspondent). A gentleman from Marian Central Catholic High School, my alma mater, paid well to get his daughter in the game. (She became a U.S. Attorney from the Northern District).

Only twice have I put a real, living person in my book. The first was Rose, the owner and proprietor of Rose’s bar on Lincoln Avenue. (Don’t worry. It’s not as scary on the inside as it looks on the out). I adore Rose—both the woman and the bar—so when I found myself writing about Izzy and Sam going to a dive bar on a spring afternoon, I stopped and thought, Why not put in the real thing?

And so, for a short scene, Izzy and Sam sat in Rose’s. They even spoke to her briefly about Polish beers.

When I got my advanced copies, I practically skipped over to Rose’s with a novel hot off the presses.

“There you are,” I said excitedly to Rose, standing on the rung of a jankety bar stool. “There you are,” I said again, pointing to her printed name.

She peered at the book, which I’d opened to the page on which she appeared. I would later learn that she did not read English well. Never had, never particularly wanted to. Still, I knew she could spot her own name. And in my novel!

“Eh,” she said, giving the book a single nod of her head, her white curls barely moving.

“That’s you!” I was like a two-year-old caught by the sight of themselves in a mirror. Or some barely adult version thereof.

No matter how many times I read Rose her passage, pointed to the words, highlighted and penciled the paragraphs, she remained unimpressed. Finally, she took the copy from my hands and placed the book behind the bar with all the other random crap (mostly glossy magazine pictures from 80s and a few portraits of a patron and his deceased wife). I stared at the book, taking great pride in making it behind the bar at Rose’s.

When I returned a few weeks later, it was gone. “Where did it go?”  I asked Rose.

“Eh,” she said, shrugging this time.

So it was years before I even considered putting someone else, someone real, in my novels.  But it happened again in a similar way. I had a scene (an opening scene of Claim of Innocence, the fourth Izzy McNeil novel, release date 8/23/11) where my main character triumphantly walks out of the civil courthouse, having lost her argument, sure, but not having made an ass of herself. I wrote about the judge who made Izzy feel listened to and respected, even though he would rule against her. And then I knew who I had to have in the book—Judge William Maddux—a legend. He’d been orphaned, become Mayor of Boystown (made popular in the Spencer Tracy movie), gotten a football scholarship to Notre Dame, became a Capital police officer in Washington D.C. (even as he was attending, and succeeding, at Georgetown law school), moved to Chicago, became wildly successful as a defense attorney and later personal injury, and eventually ascended to the bench where he became a forward-thinking, keep-the-wheels-of-justice-moving-quickly kind of judge and eventually became the  Presiding Judge of the civil division of Cook County, the most litigious place in the nation.

But once again, my subject found themselves unimpressed.  Not that Judge Maddux wasn’t excited to be in my book. He was. He’d sent messages via a few friends of mine, attorneys who regularly appeared in front of him. Make sure she brings the book, he’d say whenever there was a Chicago attorney outing we would both attend. I’d been bragging about his cameo in the book for a few years; now it was time to pay the piper.

It started well. On a sunny Friday in June (which renders everyone in Chi-town bonkers-happy) a group of judges and attorneys met at a sparkling new restaurant overlooking the Chicago river. The silverware gleamed, the glasses reflected myriad colors of smiles and laughs around the room. I handed the book proudly to the judge, a hush dying over the table.

The judge started reading. He chuckled appreciatively; a grin grew on his handsome, tanned face.  But then his eyes went flat.  Nodded. Closed the book. Put it face down on the table.

It was like Rose’s all over again. I felt my confidence tanking. “What?”  I asked, incredulous.

“My eyes are brown,” he said.

I picked up the book. I read,

I was riding off the fact that although Maggie’s opponent had won the motion, and the complaint temporarily dismissed, Judge Maddux had said “Nice argument, counsel” to me, his wise, blue eyes sparkling.

Judge Maddux had seen every kind of case in his decades of practice and every kind of lawyer. His job involved watching people duke it out, day after day after day. For him to say “Nice argument”  was a victory. It meant I still had it. 

I looked at the judge. His eyes were indeed chestnut brown. “But they have sort of a blue-ish tinge,” I said.

He frowned.

“And you seem like a blue-eyed person,” I said inanely. I looked around the table. “Doesn’t he?” I said to the other lawyers and judges.

A few people half-nodded.  “I guess,” my friend, Karen, said.

Everyone turned back to their appetizers, while Claim of Innocence lay forlorn next to the judge’s plate.

Never again, I swore to myself. Sure, I’d still let people’s names be in the books, but only when I could make them whatever kind of character I wanted. Enough of this trying to capture the real essence of someone in a fictional novel.

But I have a feeling I’ll forget this shame soon. And someone will so impress me, make such a good argument for why they, the real person, should have a conversation with Izzy. Could that be you? Or someone you know? If so, email me your suggestions to info@lauracaldwell.com.  I might be dumb enough to go a third round.

Laura Caldwell, Author on Facebook
LauraACaldwell on Twitter

Meryl L. Moss Media Relations, Inc. & Laura Caldwell are going to Bless TWO Leslie Loves Veggies Reader with a copy of CLAIM OF INNOCENCE by Laura Caldwell  {$7.99 Value} Thank you so much!

Please use Rafflecopter form for ALL entries. Blog comments unfortunately will not be counted. For daily Tweets you can just put the word Tweet in the mandatory entry box to unlock the Tweet box if it’s locked. This box tracks cookies and if you clear them it resets.

Laura Caldwell is a former civil trial attorney, now Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Director of Life After Innocence, published author of several novels and 1 nonfiction book.

Before beginning her writing career, Laura was a partner in a Chicago law firm, specializing in medical malpractice defense and entertainment law. In 2001 she joined Loyola University Chicago School of Law and has taught Advanced Litigation Writing and International Criminal Law among others.

Laura began her writing career in women’s fiction and soon turned to mystery/thriller. Her first book, Burning the Map was voted as one of the best books the year by Barnes and Noble.com. Booklist declared “Caldwell is one of the most talented and inventive…writers around,” after the release of The Year of Living Famously and The Night I got Lucky. The release of her trilogy in 2009 received critical acclaim and nominations for prestigious industry awards.

She is published in over 22 countries and translated into more than 13 languages. Laura is also a freelance magazine writer and has been published in Chicago Magazine, Woman’s Own, The Young Lawyer, Lake Magazine, Australia Woman’s Weekly, Shore Magazine and others.

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  1. 1

    I would also like to read her non fiction book long way home

  2. 2
    Gloria Walshver says:

    It sounds like a great book.

  3. 3

    Int3resting book!

  4. 4
    teressa oliver says:

    I would like to read red white dead

  5. 5

    I hit enter too quickly (accidentally)

    I would like to read The Year of Living Famously

    lkish77123 at gmail dot com

  6. 6

    I’d like to read “Red-Blooded Murder.”

  7. 7
    angela ustrnul says:

    Laura Caldwell is a former civil trial attorney, now Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Director of Life After Innocence, published author of several novels and 1 nonfiction book

  8. 8

    I learned that Laura is an attorney.

  9. 9

    I would LOVE to read A Clean Slate!

  10. 10

    I would also like to read Good Liar

  11. 11
    Leah Shumack says:

    I would also like to read the year of living famously!