The Truth About Fiction — One Writer’s Confession

A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true-story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners.

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Do you base your characters on real people?

It’s a great question, and one that readers often ask. The last time I was presented with this query, I immediately responded: No, never. And then I paused. Well, actually…I said, and then went on to explain how my dear friend Ruth had both urged me to write my first mystery (“What are you waiting for?” she said) and also inspired one of the principal characters in the book. Ruby Schumacher of Death Stalks Door County is tall and independent and a force with which to be reckoned. Much like the real-life Ruth; in fact, there’s even an echo in the two names.

Much as I insist that my characters are made from whole cloth, the truth is that I can’t help but be influenced by the people I’ve met and known throughout my life. A way of speaking, an idiosyncratic action, even a particular physical characteristic will make its way from the real world into the fictional one I am creating. Not because I’m lacking in imagination, but because the world is so rich in good material that I’d be remiss to ignore it. And sometimes because putting a person in a book keeps their memory alive.

In my new book Death at Gills Rock, a group of crusty elderly men gather at the Woodlands Sawmill to share local gossip and drink homemade cherry wine made by the proprietor, a burly man who serves his guests Death at Gills Rockcrackers and fish spread. I’ve been to just such a place in the real Door County. The owner died several years ago and the “social club” has slowly faded from the scene, but in my book, the proprietor will forever man the wood stove, the scent of burning pine will always hang in the room and the sour cherry wine will continue to flow from the Jim Beam bottle that the mill operator brandishes to his visitors.

From now on, when a reader asks if I base my characters on real people, I’ll give a more nuanced response. One that reflects the truth: that as much as I write to create a work of fiction, I sometimes unwittingly write in homage to those who have shaped and influenced my life. I do so to keep their memory strong in my own mind, and because they deserve to be shared with the world.