The “Reality” of Fiction

Guest Blogger: John Lescroart

“This book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This disclaimer occurs behind the title page of my latest novel, THE HUNTER. In fact, it occurs in one form or another in each of my twenty-three books. And yet, all of these novels are “reality-based.” I don’t write science fiction, where I conjure new worlds, life forms and languages. I deal mostly with the very real city of San Francisco and try to make it as true to life as I possibly can. I set my characters down to eat and drink and hang out in places that actually exist in San Francisco – the Little Shamrock, where I was a bartender for a year and a half of my real life, Sam’s Grill, the Hall of Justice, Coit Tower. (In fact, one of my rules about the reality of restaurants is this:  if they’re good places to eat, I use the real name; if it’s someplace where you’re likely to get ptomaine poisoning, I change it to some name I make up — such was the genesis of Lou the Greeks, originally a less than gourmet destination called Zuka’s.)

In THE HUNTER, my character Wyatt Hunt has moved his office from Chinatown to some suites above Boulevard Restaurant.  Both of these are real places. (My fond hope is that Nancy Oakes, the genius proprietress of Boulevard, will like the book and be so flattered by my portrayal of her restaurant that she might invite me to come down and have a dinner there on her – similar things have happened before in other fine San Francisco establishments!)

In any event, you get the general idea.

But what if as a writer of fiction I make the decision to create an entire story based on an actual event? We are all used to this convention; indeed, it’s the basis for all of historical fiction and much of general fiction  So is it in actuality a fiction, or lie, that we are creating purely fictional worlds? And beyond that, is there a limit to how far we can take these things, to how much we can borrow from reality before we cross into a dangerous no-man’s-land where people who actually exist, or used to exist, play a role in our stories?

I decided to push the envelope on this as I casted about for plot points in THE HUNTER. This books starts with what I thought was a tantalizing premise: Wyatt Hunt, who’d been raised by loving adoptive parents, receives a mysterious text message:  How did your mother die?

This sends him on a hunt to discover the truth about his true parentage. The plot problem for me came up because Wyatt is around forty years old. Whatever happened to his parents in his early childhood, therefore, was by necessity far removed from the here and now. To make it meaningful and in fact compelling to a modern audience, I felt that I needed to connect the dots between Wyatt Hunt in 2012 and something – a real, important, well-known event – that happened forty years ago, i.e. sometime in or after 1972.

What I came up with was Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in 1978.  Could I somehow connect Wyatt Hunt and/or his parents to that tragedy. I felt certain that if I could, I would have a story with a deep and almost primal resonance, a resonance that I could not duplicate by supplying a truly fictional, made up back story. (Sorry, but you’ll have to read the book to see if I pulled this off.  J)

But this leads me back to some of the original questions that I’d like to toss out there for my readers: If this book is in fact “a work of fiction,” and it is, is there a limit to the amount of reality we can inject into the story? What if Jim Jones and Jonestown still existed in the present? Where is the line – or is there one? – between the deep emotional resonance attached to real historical events, e.g. Jonestown, the JFK assassination, Los Alamos in World War II, and a fictional story attached to them? Or is it more that all “reality-based” stories such as THE HUNTER spring from the world as it actually exists, and that fiction is simply an alternative universe that uses what it needs from its sister reality, i.e. “real” life, to draw readers into a comfortable and mostly familiar world, but one which can be bent and twisted, ordered and rearranged?

What do you think?

John Lescroart’s writing skills are a national treasure. – The Huffington Post

John Lescroart is the NY Times Bestselling author of twenty-two novels, including most recently THE HUNTER (January, 2012), the latest in the San Francisco based Wyatt Hunt series. Libraries Unlimited has included him in its publication “The 100 Most Popular Thriller and Suspense Authors,” his books have been translated into twenty languages in more than seventy-five countries, and his short stories appear in many anthologies.

John’s first novel, SUNBURN, won the San Francisco Foundation’s Joseph Henry Jackson Award for best as yet unpublished novel by a California author, and DEAD IRISH and THE 13TH JUROR were nominees for the Shamus and Anthony Best Mystery Novel, respectively; additionally THE 13TH JUROR is included in the International Thriller Writers publication “100 Must-Read Thrillers Of All Time.” HARD EVIDENCE is named in “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Ultimate Reading List.” GUILT was a Readers Digest Select Edition choice. THE MERCY RULE, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, and THE SUSPECT have been major market Book Club selections. THE SUSPECT was also the 2007 One Book Sacramento choice of the Sacramento Library Foundation, and was chosen by the American Author’s Association as its 2007 Book of the Year. Each of the last several of John’s books have been Main Selections of one or more of the Literary Guild, Mystery Guild, and Book of the Month Club, and DAMAGE made Entertainment Weekly’s “Must List.”

Outside of the book world, John loves to cook.  His original recipes have appeared in Gourmet Magazine and in the cookbook “A Taste of Murder.”  (He also wrote the forward to Francine Brevetti’s paean to the famous San Francisco eatery Fior d’Italia entitled The Fabulous Fior:  100 Years in an Italian Kitchen.)

John and his wife, Lisa Sawyer, live in Northern California.


  1. John,

    It’s hard to know where to draw the line, and I would guess it depends on each of us. Guyana was a long time ago, so I see that as history, and when it’s history, it’s easier for the reader to make that leap. One of the things that sticks in my mind was the gun battle at the plane, and the Congressman being killed. I always thought that would be an interesting side story that could have implications for the future, the loss of the one congressman. (Maybe I’m a minimalist.) I’m blanking on the author — a great female mystery author – who wrote a story not to long after 9/11. A very beautiful but painful story–respectful and illuminating. Nelson DeMille wrote about Flight 800 as if he were falling off a log.

    I suppose, like everything else, taste comes into it, from the reader’s point of view, and the author’s. For instance, I don’t think I could write a book starting with the premise of a black man being dragged to death by a truck. It just would be too much. But I’m currently reading Stephen King’s 11/22.63, and it is masterful. I guess a great writer can write about anything. What grabs me about that book is the personal story of the man in it–his life, and the things he does. In many ways, it doesn’t feel like a story of stopping JFK’s assassin at all.

    When I was younger and more audacious, I wrote a historical that included the OK Corral Gunfight. In fact, I was crazy enough to put the gunfight in the POV of one of the participants–one who died–Tom McLaury. I doubt I’d have the guts to do that now.

    I think there’s something fun for the author in bending time, if coming up with one’s own story to go with the facts. It’s an exciting way to write.

    I know one thing: I’m looking forward to reading THE HUNTER.

  2. S.J. Rozan – that was the writer.

    Also, please excuse all the typos. 🙂

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