Turning Fact into Fiction

Turning Fact into Fiction



I came to my career as a fiction writer by way of magazine journalism and journalism education. That background gave me advantages some fiction writers may lack:

1) the absence of fear about submitting manuscripts to publishers
2) an appreciation of meeting deadlines
3) a comfort level about weaving into my stories material about subjects some might consider journalistic
4) a belief in the old advice to “write what you know”
5) the importance (to me anyway) of having one main character that I can go back to for each book—easier to do than to write “stand-alone” novels—readers like it too, I think. You can also bring back other characters you like. This way I can look to my own life for ideas and not have to invent everything each time I write a book

I deliberately made my protagonist, Thomas Martindale, a college journalism professor who used to be a magazine investigative reporter. I have done both in a career as a journalist with various McGraw-Hill magazines and as a journalism professor at Oregon State University. Because of this background, I thought I could use experiences from my own life in both the academic world and the word of big-time magazine journalism. I have never to my knowledge solved a murder, however.

Many situations arise in a big university that could lead to murder. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people on campuses think murderous thoughts, but do not actually do the deed. It is a rarified world in which people take their little part of—say an academic specialty they are expert in—very seriously.

I have been in or heard about hundreds of situations in my 24 years at OSU that involve conflict of one kind of the other. I have also come into contact with people I might hazily pattern a character after, because of something that happened to them or because they have certain personality traits. I would never write about a real person by just changing a name, however, because that would not be fair in that they could not defend themselves against such an invasion of their privacy.

The reason for the journalism tie-in was my feeling that that experience would allow Martindale to know something about finding out information and solving puzzles. On most stories, reporters begin with only a scrap of information and then go on a hunt to find out the truth—one call leads to another and people tell you things and give you things and suggest other sources. It is really fun. Criminal detection is somewhat the same—although the stakes are much higher and the subject being investigated—the loss of one life or more—very tragic.



Before talking about my first book, Murder at Yaquina Head, let me go over the kinds of real subjects I wove into the first two manuscripts I wrote for the series. You see “YH" was not the first mystery I wrote; it is the first to be published.

At several points in my career, I have free-lanced. That means I have long been a collector of information about subjects that interest me and subjects I might sometime write about. I also saved stuff to use in my classes. So I now have three filing cabinets of material which I clean out only when I need to fit something else in. I usually keep projects I am working on on my writing table in those old-style wire baskets. When something is done, I must get it off the desk to make way for something else but I can’t throw it away just yet. I might need to use it in the future.

I have also done several book projects that I could not sell. I have published 14 textbooks but have never been able to sell a non-fiction trade book.

In 1981, I got an assignment to do an article on whale research in the Canadian Arctic for the Exxon external magazine. Got me interested in whales in general and Bowhead whales in particular. I also gathered a lot of material I could not put into the relatively short article. Another failed book project despite good material and good sources.

But, as is my habit, I saved all the material. And when the time came to write my first mystery, I knew it would revolve around whales. That is to be Dead Whales Tell no Tales. I set the story against an International Whaling Commission conference at the OSU Marine Science Center and worked in some of my material from the old book idea.

Caution: in doing this, you have to be careful that the stuff doesn’t read like a speech or, horrors, a textbook! But it is still compelling stuff and I am pleased with it.

Another caution: Be sure not to malign a person or institution you are portraying. I love OSU and sent 24 years of my life there but I chose to call it “Oregon University” to cover myself a little. Everyone can guess where it is by building names and having it set in Corvallis and my connection, but I just felt more comfortable in not calling it OSU.

Another caution about using real things: you can take a lot of artistic license about even moving geographic locations, for example, but it you cite a provable fact—like statistics about a building or a year or a real product, you need to be accurate. [More about this later]

That brings me to the book that was first to be published, Murder at Yaquina Head. The idea for the novel came from my interviewing OSU faculty members who had fought in World War II for an issue of the liberal arts magazine I edited. I augmented that by doing research on the war, particularly about its effect on Vichy France and also about French lighthouses. I wanted to use the device of a memoir from that era as both a way to convey information and as a main clue to the identity of the killer.

A character who we see but not hear from much is a mildly retarded young man who I use as what Alfred Hitchcock called the “Maguffin” the thing everyone is after—a secret formula, some jewels, a non-existent person. Adam Edwards and his job in the cemetery is based on something that happened on the coast in the mid-1980s—the discovery of bodies not buried or buried more than one to a grave by the mortician in Lincoln City. I had heard that a retarded man working at the mortuary had disappeared and was never found. It didn’t make the news but I remembered it and decided to use that kind of character here. Anther device was people at a brunch which allows you to bring in a number of suspects. I also used the longstanding OSU/U of O rivalry. And I made a villain out of a person from that institution who my lead guy had a run-in with in a previous book.

Another word about my earlier caution about real places: the details of the lighthouse had to be right—dates, dimensions, etc. But I changed the way my character got there—I had him walk in from the north along the cliffs but that was not possible without crampons!

Writing this and my other mystery novels is the most fun I have had since I began to write in high school—a long time ago. It is stimulating and challenging and gratifying to see your name on the cover of a book and a story you cooked up in your head on the pages. Making factual material a part of your fictional story adds authenticity and substance to any mystery novel, as long as you are careful to follow some of the rules outlined here.


  • Murder Below Zero—global warming and the Arctic
  • Yaquina White—lighthouse, global warming, human trafficking
  • Murder in E-flat Major—symphony orchestras and terrorism
  • Murder in the Steens—an iconic Oregon landmark, wild horses
  • Searching for Murder—how universities choose presidents
  • Descent Into Madness—an abandoned asylum as a setting, plus drug trafficking
  • Murder Times Two—how a somewhat shady carnival operates, how a freelance photographer does her work, drug gangs in Oregon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *