- by Barbara Keiler
When Olivia Rupprecht of HCI Books approached me a year ago and invited me to write one of the launch titles for True Vows, HCI’s new imprint of romances based on the love affairs of real people, I said yes. I thought—silly me—that writing a novelization of an actual romance would be easy. Kind of like writing historical fiction, except that I wouldn’t have to research all that stuff about who fought which battle in the thirteenth century or how people obtained oatmeal before the advent of supermarkets. Kind of like taking dictation, except that I wouldn’t have to write so fast. Kind of like penning a diary, except that it would be someone else’s diary.
I should have remembered that nothing about writing is easy, with the possible exception of hearing readers say they love your books. Writing Meet Me in Manhattan, a romance novel based on the real-life courtship of Ted Skala and Erika Fredell, was a challenge—an exhilarating, rewarding one, but a challenge nonetheless.
Ted and Erika’s story originally appeared as a brief article in the “Sunday Style” section of the New York Times. Ted and Erika had been high school sweethearts, too young to know what to do with the intense love they felt for each other. They broke up, managing to wound each other and themselves in the process, and went their separate ways. Sixteen years later, they both found themselves working in Manhattan, and they arranged to meet for a drink. One beer and one friendly embrace were all it took to throw their lives into complete turmoil.
I loved their story. It struck me as the perfect plot for a romance novel: young, reckless love; years spent apart; two people utterly certain they’d left the past behind; and the discovery that sometimes love is simply meant to be, no matter how bad the timing or how inconvenient the emotions. HCI Books negotiated with Ted and Erika for the rights to their story, and then I set out to turn it into a grand, emotional, romantic novel.
And no, it wasn’t easy.
Novelists are used to making things up. Writing about real people meant I couldn’t simply make up what I needed for the story. If Erika went to Colorado, as she did at a crucial point in her relationship with Ted, I couldn’t write that she’d gone to the Galapagos Islands, even if I thought including some blue-footed boobies would add whimsy to the tale. If Ted found work pumping gas, I couldn’t arbitrarily give him a job as a cowboy, given that he was from New Jersey, where professional cowboys are a rarity.
However, I did make things up. I invented teammates for Ted when he was a high school varsity wrestler; I invented college friends for Erika. I shaped scenes, tinkered with chronologies, designed a prom gown for Erika and left messages from an imaginary landlord on Ted’s answering machine.
The line between fiction and fact is a thin one, and that line is drawn by the author’s imagination. When people who know me read my books, they often see themselves in the characters, or they recall an incident from my past that they believe was the inspiration for my novel. To this day, my husband insists that the heroes of all my romance novels are based on him—and I’m not foolish enough to tell him otherwise.
Everything a novelist experiences is potential fodder for her book. Just as a bartender can take fresh fruit, rum and ice cubes, stick them in a blender and produce a daiquiri, novelists take what we know of the world, blend and process the ingredients we’re working with and—we hope!—produce something delicious and intoxicating.
In Meet Me in Manhattan, I was handed some tantalizing ingredients. I’d never prepared a cocktail
with these specific ingredients before, but because writing fiction is what I do, I reviewed my mental file of recipes, then experimented, adjusted and tweaked. I added a pinch of this and a splash of that. The result is a book readers can enjoy as a romance novel, all the while knowing that Ted and Erika really did overcome all their heartache and conflicts and wind up, like any romance novel’s hero and heroine, living happily ever after.