I Swear, I Just Made It Up (No, Really, I Did)

‘So I read your book,’ they say.

When someone I know personally – a relative, a friend, a former co-worker or classmate – says this to me, I never know how to respond. You cannot ask ‘And what did you think?’ because that puts them on the spot and anyway  I don’t want to know because it might be bad. Usually I either mumble a thank you, or giggle nervously and say that that’s good because now there’s going to be a quiz.


Sometimes though, before I can do any of these socially awkward things, they get a bit of a glint in their eye and their face adopts a kind of suspicious-yet-bemused expression (trust me, this exists) and then they say something like ‘Who was x based on?’ or ‘Where did you get that idea?’ and everything – their tone, their face, the little pause they took before they asked the question – suggests to me that they think they already know the answer, and that the answers lies in my real life.

They refuse to believe that I just made it up. Or maybe they can’t believe it, and I get why that might be.

First of all, if you’re not a writer, making stuff up must seem like a bat-faeces crazy concept. Something from nothing? A whole 100,000-word book from a virtual blank page? What voodoo is this?! (The caffeine-induced kind, obviously.) I feel the same way at the start of the process, when I’m staring down that blank page, the first of 400 or so of them that I have to murder one-by-one in order to write a book. It is a kind of black magic. And over those 400 pages, there’s bound to be some person or some experience that’s common to us all, and people who know you are bound to read it and think that it’s based on your personal experience that’s common to us to all, and that actually this fiction is thinly disguised fact. Even though it’s not.


Big surprise for me this week – Blackstone, my US publisher, did my ARCs (American for proof copies, don’t ya know) in hardcover! They look absolutely amazing – as do the “brochures” for a cruise aboard the Celebrate that are going to go out to reviewers, bloggers, etc. with them. We have a new US publication date as well: February 2, 2017. 

Second of all… Well, not all of it is fiction. Some of it is thinly disguised fact. Because while I don’t abide by the advice that you should write what you know, I wholeheartedly believe that you should, as much as possible, use what you know. In Distress Signals, Adam is a struggling writer surrounded by people who think he should get a proper job. (Ahem.) This was easier for me than, say, making him a biochemist, especially because I was so bad at the single year of Chemistry I did in secondary school that I wouldn’t have just failed the state exam in it, I would’ve been unable to say for sure if the exam paper I’d been handed was in fact the correct one. (Luckily I dropped it before such a scenario could occur.)

I’d never worked on a cruise ship, but I had worked in the housekeeping department of a colossal hotel, and in principle the running of a department that cleans cabins on a ship is exactly the same. I’d also had experience of living “on site”; back in 2006, I (briefly) worked as a campsite courier on a resort in France. During the day I cleaned sparkly new customer accommodation – tents and mobile homes – and afterwards I went back to the crappy old broken tent the company had given me to live in. Everything we had, from the pillows thinner than a slice of toast to the cracked patio chairs to the chipped mugs, had already been used and abused the paying customers – just like what Corinne and the rest of the crew have on board the Celebrate.


There is a chance to win one of these beautiful babies, signed and personally inscribed, over on my Facebook page. Open worldwide until midnight GMT Sunday 18th September. 

And, yes, all Corkonians – most Irish people, in fact – do pronounce the word ‘film’ with two syllables, i.e. ‘fill-um.’ And ever since I started working abroad and being the butt of good-natured jokes about this, I have avoided using that word. I tend to say ‘movie’ instead, encroaching American influence on my language be damned, or very carefully pronounce the f-word. Adam does this in Distress Signals. Does that mean Adam is really me? No! Because if we take that logic to its extreme, I am also French and (potentially) a serial killer.

(And let’s just say, god help me for Book 2.)

I think there could be a third reason the non-writing people in your life believe that they see mutual friends or shared relatives in the pages of your book: because they want to. That’s what the suspicious/bemused look is about, the knowing smile, the wink. (Yes, sometimes there’s even a wink.) They think they’ve sussed it, spotted a secret hidden in plain sight, solved the clues – and maybe they think no one else has. Or maybe it’s not about them, but about me. Maybe they think I couldn’t have made it up. That I’m just not that talented or creative or imaginative. But moving swiftly on—


Book 2 is finally FINISHED. Well, the first draft of it is but that’s the hardest part.  I bought this little bottle of champagne to drink when I typed THE END but it’s actually still in my fridge because I am awaiting verdicts from my agent and my editor. I love revising and redrafting so I know this is just raw material in many ways, but still it’s important that they think it’s good enough raw material. I’ll let you know if I get to open it! 

I made it up. That’s what fiction is, what being a writer is. I sit down at my desk, I drink coffee and I make stuff up until there’s enough made-up stuff to make a book.

So if you’re reading Distress Signals or you’ve travelled into the future and are already reading Book 2, rest assured, I just made it up.

All of it. Every word.

Well, except for that bit that’s obviously about you.

In other news, you may have noticed the e-book of Distress Signals has got new threads. Find out more about what and why in Distress Signals: The Cover Story over on Writing.ie. Don’t forget you can enter to win a HARDCOVER (ooooh!) ARC of it over on my Facebook page or, if you’re a book reviewer or blogger who’s based in the U.S., you can also request it from NetGalley

18 thoughts on “I Swear, I Just Made It Up (No, Really, I Did)

  1. jayspencergreen says:

    I don’t think you can win either way, Catherine. When I tell folk that my novels are pure fiction, the response is generally, “Well, you have wonder about what kind of mind would make up stuff like that.”

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      That’s true. A friend gave it to their relative (who I’ve never met) and the relative asked my friend afterwards, ‘Is Catherine a very complex person?’ I think that was her nice way of saying, ‘Could Catherine secretly be a murderer?’ 😀

  2. Matt Wainwright says:

    I once had the pleasure of writing a book expressly for my nephews which featured them in the leading roles. They thought it was the best thing ever, probably one step away from being on TV. If only adults were so flattered …

  3. Sigrid P cook says:

    Hello Catherine,

    We are in PEI and people here on the island said that about Lucy Maude Montgomery, “To be careful or else you will end up in her novel.” And she did write a lot about the people here on the island and made them fictional characters in the “Anne of Green Gables” books, which I am sure you have read as a youngster.


    Sigrid P Cook


  4. authorangelachristinaarcher says:

    My sister has asked me before if I molded a few characters in different novels after her. Honestly, I haven’t . . . well, haven’t after her. But, I can’t say they weren’t a version of a few other people in my mind.

    I think a lot of authors take tid-bits here and there. Sometimes life is more twisted than a novel anyway. Lol

  5. Dave Farmer says:

    I have indeed seen that bemused glint in the eye. When I tell people I made it up there’s often a slight frown and I suspect some are hoping I’ll say “Oh well obviously that character was based on you, who else is that amazing at everything!”

    And yes, I have that same response when someone says they’ve read my book, or even a blog post. I’m still a little surprised and awkward, though on occasion I have overcome that moment of weird silence and blurted out something like “Well good for you!” I say with a wide smile tinged with a forced shred of insanity. “That’s why us writers write, so you readers can keep on reading. Anyway, where’s the coffee?”

    It’s fun to mess with people.

  6. Kaine Andrews says:

    Whenever people ask if “thus and such is a thinly veiled caricature of so and so,” I gladly say “no!” with pride. Because I don’t think any of my characters are just one person. I might be able to say they’re “mostly” so-and-so, sometimes, but that’s about it; I throw everything in the pot and create Frankensteinian horror shows out of the people I’ve encountered. Makes things easier. 😉
    Though, to be fair, I do get the “What sort of mind coughs up this sort of rubbish?” quite a bit, so win some, lose some, I guess… XD

  7. Roz Morris @Roz_Morris says:

    Yes, I know this so well. And sometimes your friends don’t want to think you made it up. They get a glint in their eye and say ‘but that wicked character was really that strange girl we never liked, wasn’t she’? Nothing will persuade them otherwise.
    I really am going to be in trouble one day.

  8. brmaycock says:

    When you say ‘maybe they think I couldn’t have made it up,’ you could twist it and say that maybe they DO think that, but because it’s just such a masterpiece! (Yup, I’m one of those glass half full people …;)) Congratulations on book 2:)

  9. dearanonymousfriend says:

    how wo nderful! I have published a short story so long ago it’s another life. I have a thought for a book, but, have yet to actually put what I have written (again a long time ago) down onto a blank page. I dream of it, and say I will do it, and I never do. Reading this post has made me, once more chide myself and say, do it! I get nervous when I leave a comment on a post or if someone I know talks about my blog! I’m hopeless….

  10. Joe Long says:

    Yes, I throw in things I’ve seen and heard over the years and several of my characters have a real life basis. Sometimes I even take notes when people are spilling their heart out on Twitter.

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