A Novel Based on a Terrifying 9/11 True Story

by Jill Amadio

The big “What if…” offers writers a limitless world of characters, plots, settings, and time frames, a chance to change history, to bend it a little. What if Henry VIII died at birth? What if General William Sherman never undertook his famous March to the Sea? Shakespeare would have been deprived of many of the plots for his plays and Scarlett O’Hara would have had no reason to be created.

The good news is, much of our past provides those who write historical fiction with stepping off points for their novels, with real characters who resound throughout the ages but can be given sham qualities they never possessed in real life.

Yet, how much twisting of the truth do these books require to suit the author’s fictional story? Is it a dilemma, a difficult choice, or a decision to blithely rewrite history? As for those writing non-fiction, do the same criteria apply?

The case of James Frey comes to mind as I mention it in my new novel that is – surprise! – based on a true story. Frey’s memoir, “a Million Little Pieces,” was revealed as fake although he was reported to have asked his publisher to release the book as a novel. However, Random House decided sales would be greater as a true story. To his credit Frey admitted he fabricated and exaggerated parts of the book.

Which brings me to a personal point regarding fiction, non-fiction, and writing the truth. A few months after September 11, 2001 I was approached by a young woman who said she had been married to one of the hijackers. She wished to tell her story.  As a ghostwriter I published several memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies under my clients’ names.

Long story short, I wrote the book for her. Then I printed it out and slipped it into a drawer. I didn’t look at it either in hard copy or digital form but kept the document on my laptop and on a thumb drive during all the years since.

The pandemic, forcing writers into greater isolation than usual, and for more than a year, has changed our way of life, and in my case, shredded any writerly income I was making as a hired hand. During those 13 months I thought about books I’d written and set aside, and decided to take a second look at the 9/11 story.

For several reasons I decided to turn the true story into as a novel. Luckily, I had retained all the documents including the marriage certificate, divorce decree, photos of her with the Said Arabian she married at 17 years old, and cassette recordings of her and her family. I also had written a 40-paqge non-fiction book proposal which resulted in my being signed up by a top New York literary agent. It was 13 months after the 9/11 attacks. However, the upshot was that no publisher would touch it.  The agent suggested they were afraid of reprisals because the book provides a rare, under-the-radar- glimpse into the terrorists’ personal lives in America, their loves of strip clubs and pizza, for instance, and the kinds of activities that should have served as red flags to law enforcement agencies.

Turning the non-fiction story into fiction was easy. I had all the background I needed both on tape, with photos,  and in documents. With Frey’s experience in mind I was careful to stick to the truth to back everything up but as the book was fiction, who would worry about its origin? The subtitle clearly states that the book is based on a true story.

Over the past two weeks I have received glowing reviews, all 5-star to date, and my dear neighbor, a retired CEO of a large company who writes a newsletter, said he’d be happy to give it some space. He added as an afterthought that would have to write the word “true” in quotes. He did not believe any of it happened, that it was too far-fetched. At first I remonstrated, then told him I really didn’t care if he believed it or not. I knew the truth.

Which brings me back to the point of this post: authors taking actual history, or history as reported, and subverting it to their own ends to make a book more interesting as some of our greatest writers have done. Is there a lesson here? Will youngsters believe the fiction or the real truth?

 

 

 

 

 

A “Ghostly” Post

by Jill Amadio

Inhabiting your characters’ heads is great fun. You can make up anything, criminal or law-abiding, and create whatever you wish as to their mental, physical, and emotional health. Conversely, inhabiting a real person’s head as a ghost in order to write their life story as a biography or an autobiography, is an entirely different challenge. No nasty habits revealed, no odd scenes to upset a reader. No puzzles to sort out unless one is writing an unauthorized biography. Ah, then their life can become far more interesting, an open book, pardon the pun. Gathering differing opinions from relatives and friends, researching from birth, yes, then the writer is given more latitude. With a cautious eye to libel, naturally.

Hired to write both biographies and autobiographies, 16 in fact, and all but one at the client’s behest, is fascinating. What interests me these days, though, as I finish polishing one such tome, is whether stepping into their shoes is informing and influencing my own fiction, the mysteries I write.  I’ve come to the conclusion that because I am constantly learning about people, places, and an enormous variety of subjects I am broadening my own knowledge and experiences while delving mercilessly into my clients’ lives.

I have been a cop, a lawyer, a businessman, a CEO, a diplomat, a realtor, a criminal, a motivational speaker, a body builder, a helicopter inventor, a movie star’s wife, a falsely-accused woman on trial, and others. All real people.   I have listened to and written about moments that brought me to tears, to laughter, and to an appreciation of courage, fortitude and, in my opinion, to occasional greatness. There are moments of modesty in some of these books, written and printed exclusively for the family instead of the public, that are appreciated, with grandchildren learning of their grandparents’ valor or brilliance, for instance, instead of regarding them as old fossils with nothing interesting to say.

Writing the first-person story for a retired U.S. Ambassador has taken me into the inner workings of the State Department; third world countries when America first established a consulate amid riots; the personal habits of a benign dictator, and a few dangerous incidents. One of my favorite biographies I felt privileged to write is of a woman who rose from extreme poverty to owning a casino, one of so many typical dreams realized. Another, of the first policewoman in a now-famous town in northern California. I was hired to write a true crime but after it was finished the surviving victim decided not to publish. I once held preliminary meetings in Laguna Beach with a murderer (currently serving life) until his gave the job to his best friend, a writer, before being indicted.

One biography written under my own name, published in nine countries and that took me to Germany five times, is the life of a World War II Luftwaffe pilot. This one I at first declined because my father was in the Royal Air Force during that war. But the publisher was persuasive and generous and I was intrigued enough to want to learn first-hand of the opposite side.

Not long ago and with several non-fiction projects under my belt I was hired to ghostwrite a novel. I was thinking at the time of writing a mystery series. After persuading the client to add a couple of murders, I created a forensic accountant and turned the novel into a cozy. I can barely add two and two so books on banking and CPAs required quite a lot of study, as did notes on the members of the Russian mafia who reside in Beverly Hills (they really do), and a few descriptions and tidbits about small planes. Happily, I was left alone most of the time to create characters, settings, criminal activity, and plots. When I finished practicing writing a mystery, thanks to this wonderful client who self-published on amazon, I began my own series.

Juggling non-fiction and fiction by writing about people’s lives, and in between times creating mysteries, can be a rewarding if sometimes angst-ridden experience. I could write a book…

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Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. She is the ghostwriter of 14 memoirs, and wrote the Rudy Valle biography, “My Vagabond Lover,” with his wife, Ellie. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep.” The second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead,” was released this year. The books are based in Newport http://www.jillamadio.com

Books: Digging Too Deep, Digging Up the Dead

Non-Fiction: My Vagabond Lover: An Intimate Biography of Rudy Vallee; Gunther Rall: A Memoire, Luftwaffe Ace and NATO General

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This post was submitted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin

Mystery People

By Jill Amadio

As a Brit I put up with a lot of ribbing in America. Some friends take me to task for pronunciation. Well, I can’t help it if I have a very slight West Country accent as I am from Cornwall. To my amusement my accent is occasionally mistaken for Australian.

As a writer from over there, though, the ribbing can give me indigestion or at the very least depression for hours. The main problem is spelling. I am warned by colleagues that editors at U.S. publishing houses come down hard if you keep inserting a “u” into words like behaviour,  colour, and honour, or substitute a ”z’ for an “s”. Other minefields include using “ae” rather than “e,” as in “aeon” and “eon”.  Maybe it’s a matter simplicity. Americans pare as many ells from words as possible while Brits love double ells, such as “levelling” versus “leveling”.

My books are published here but habits die hard and I usually claim that Brits use the correct spellings. They only got chopped when unnecessary (to whom?) letters are summarily killed off. Flautists are called flutists, kerb is curb, and gaol is jail. Obviously what it comes down to is pronunciation, though. Americans spell words economically as they are spoken which is commendable although it escapes me why tyre is spelled tire. I think it has to do with the Boston Tea Party and wanting to be set apart from that awful king.

It’s a huge temptation to some authors who have leapt across the pond to use British spelling, perhaps as a sly signal to agents and publishers they are querying that the writer is a Brit – a sort of literary snobbism one occasionally encounters. In my first mystery I have my lead character admonish the British consul’s wife for this attitude which I did, in fact, actually encounter in Newport Beach.

Then there’s the grammar. Collective nouns in particular give me pause. Is a group, say, a government, singular or plural? Americans say it’s the former; Brits insist on the latter.  I have a page from the Associated Press Stylebook permanently stuck to my printer to remind me which to use.

Figuring out past particles is always fun. For instance, Brits say “pleaded” Yanks say “pled”. Oh, and the very, very worst word I hate to see changed is “hanged”. To my mind it should refer only to someone at the loop end of a rope, giving the action a far heftier meaning than the briefer word “hung”, as used here. People are not paintings.

What else? “Have” and “take” always flummox me. Am I going to take a bath? Or, am I going to have a bath? I read somewhere that this is an example of a delexical verb, which I’m not even going to touch.

While writing my mystery my beta readers caught another mistake. I wrote, “He drove her to hospital.” Wrong. I was told there should be a “the” in front of “hospital”.  I’m sure there’s some kind of diabolical rule about this but I think it is fine to give an in-house editor something to mark up to justify his/her salary.  As for tenses, the past participle in the U.S. for “got” is “gotten,” an ugly word that makes me shudder enough to want to write a thriller entitled “The Dangling Participle and the Dark, Dark Pluperfect”.

While writing the first in my crime series, whose amateur sleuth is a disgraced Cornish woman exiled by the palace for discovering a scandal (not sexual!), I had to learn the police rankings and figure out who was a sheriff and who was a police officer. Having worked with a reporter at the good old British rag, the Sunday Dispatch, I decided to have my sleuth simplify her confusion (and mine) by using British titles. When caught speeding she addresses a California Highway Patrol (CHiP) officer as Chief Superintendent, and calls the Chief of Police,  Constable.  I was very pleased to learn that sheriffs and policemen can be lumped into a group collectively referred to as “cops”.

When I mention a British pastime, such as nighthawking, no one has a clue as to its meaning. I was going to give the nasty habit to a character in my next book but I decided the explanation could be tedious unless you’re one yourself.

Even the four seasons can be a challenge. Seeking representation for my new book I scoured the agent lists and was rejected by 55 of them. I knew small presses can be approached directly and I found one with whose name I fell totally in love: Mainly Murder Press in Connecticut. However, the website declared, NO SUBMISSIONS UNTIL LATE SPRING!

Ha. I immediately sent in my query along with a note: “Dear MMP, I live in Southern California and although it is only January according to the calendar, and snowing where you are, it is already late spring here. You should see the roses!”

I received an email back within three hours, asking me to send chapters. Which I did. Obviously the publisher was not off in Tahiti but still on the snowy East Coast.” MMP published only 12-14 books a year and has now closed its doors but who can resist the name? So my advice is to go ahead and break the rules. Lay it on thick. Change the climate. Worked for me.

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Jill Amadio is from Cornwall, UK, but unlike her amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, she is far less grumpy. Jill began her career as a reporter in London (UK), then Madrid (Spain), Bogota (Colombia), Bangkok (Thailand), Hong Kong, and New York. Jill writes a column for a British mystery magazine, and is an audio book narrator. She is the author of the award-winning mystery, “Digging Too Deep” and the second book in the series, “Digging Up the Dead.”  The books are set in Newport, California.    http://www.jillamadio.com

 

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This article was posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin (Photojaq)

"Truth or Consequences: The Perils of Ghost Writing" by Jackie Houchin

Jackie is a retired photo-journalist, a book reviewer and blogger. She loves to travel and read, and has a favorite, very intelligent cat named Story (what else?). She is involved in her church ministries for children and the elderly and admits to being a “sinner saved by God’s grace.”
  
 Awhile back I was approached by a friend who asked me if I’d be interested in doing some writing for him. He and a couple friends were building a non-profit website that would feature true stories by everyday people who volunteered to share how they came to faith. The website would be called Real Christian Testimonies (http://realct.org/rct/).
Rick explained that while many people had amazing stories, most were not writers. He needed me to interview and “ghost write” their stories, using their own words as much as possible. (He and his friend were interviewing men; he needed me to write women’s testimonies.)
His request excited me. I had been a journalist for several small local newspapers over the previous years and I enjoyed meeting new people, discovering their unique stories and writing about them. (See my earlier ‘Writers in Residence’ blog post on interview techniques at: http://bit.ly/1LKyVvf ). Although this was not quite what I had done before, I thought I could be good at it and agreed to try.
Rick sent me a packet listing their mission statement, what each story should include, and a release form for the interviewee to sign after reading the final draft of her testimony. This was something I’d never had to do as a reporter, but it made sense. The privately owned website was concerned with accurately telling the person’s personal truth; something you can’t always say about newspapers.
After I wrote a testimony and got it approved, I would submit it with the signed release form and a headshot photo of the person (or an image of something pertaining to the story, if they did not want to be photographed). The website owners would give final approval.
 I was eager to get started.
I had a woman I admired in mind, so I approached her with the idea. She agreed and we set an interview time and a place. She was a college professor now and I knew she’d be a stickler for accuracy, so I took my tape recorder. Then I forgot to turn it on! Boy was I rusty! I’d jotted down only the main points of her story, so when it came to writing it, I had to email her with many questions. Talk about embarrassment! But I learned my lesson. Which each following interview I took meticulous notes.
I wrote up her story, edited a few things at her request, got her approval, and then submitted it. I was eager to see “my story” (although I had no byline) on the website. Rick, however, sent it back by return email for further editing. Huh?
I learned that I could not mention well-know people by name or the specific places connected to them, even though they were an integral part of the testimony, I’d shown them in a positive light, and I hadn’t quoted them. Why? Because I would have had to get permission if their names were included. Wow. That never happened in newspaper stories. Public people were just that… public. Rick also said that the website wanted to stay as “main stream” as possible, without promoting one denomination over another.

I rewrote the sections he mentioned, ran the edits by my professor again, had her sign an additional release form and resubmitted. This time it was approved.

The next two testimonies I wrote ran the same gamut with slight differences. I had minor areas to edit for the interviewees, but the stories got jammed up with the editors again. I had mentioned people in the stories that had made an impact, this time in a negative way. They were non-celebs, however, and I had used only first names, or sometimes simply a relationship (ex-husband, boyfriend, father, etc.), but that didn’t matter.
Rick explained. If any of the people I’d written tangentially about read the story, they (or a relative in the case of one who’d died), might be offended and come after the website. Okaaay. These were a little more difficult to write around and still use the original “voice” of the women, but I finally did it to their and Rick’s satisfaction.

The testimony I’m working on now is a powerful story. The life of this young woman has changed dramatically, but she went through “the valley of the shadow of death,” literally. Several times, my tears joined hers as I listened to her hesitantly tell about it. How was I ever going to adequately write this, I wondered.

It took me a very long time, and then it came in at a thousand words over the website limit.

This time I sent it to Rick first, asking for advice on where to cut it. He came back immediately with what I could NOT write about, regardless of how compelling or effective. Areas of illegal or even criminal activities on the part of anyone mentioned in the story were strictly out. It could hurt my interviewee in the long run, and the words and actions I’d revealed about people, might result in a lawsuit against the website if they were ever to read her testimony. Yikes!
I should have known that, but I’d harked back to my investigative newspaper journalism days, and had forgotten. I’d zeroed in on revealing the details of the story and had forgotten the purpose of the website. (Following a magazine or website’s guidelines is one of the first rules of article writers!)
So I cut and rewrote it – thinking I must be softening the story. Then following Rick’s further advice, I cut it more and rewrote it again.  And, what do you know! The story of how her belief in Jesus Christ dramatically changed her life emerged crystal clear. It was the jewel in the muck.

By considering “the consequences” and being wise about not telling sordid and unnecessary “truth,” I’d done a better job. The young woman’s story was told, God was honored, and I learned a valuable lesson. I will certainly always tell the truth when ghost writing a person’s testimony, but I will also decide and eliminate what is superfluous to that truth and which might bring needless and “nasty” consequences. Good advice for all non-fiction writing, I think, but especially in writing for ministry.