The answer to the question “Where do writers get their ideas?” is usually pretty mundane. Instead of a secret portal to an alternate universe where they research their amazing stories, instead it usually boils down to either personal experience or an event in history. In fact, the “inspired by real events” route to novel writing is much more common than most people realize; a lot of famous novels were based on things that actually happened, though by the time the author was done with it that inspiration might no longer be obvious. And sometimes events just fade into the past and become unfamiliar to modern-day readers. The list of novels inspired by actual events is long, but here are five of the most surprising books that turn out to be based on things that actually happened.
The Girls, by Emma Cline
Historical Inspiration: The Manson Murders
When you see footage of Charles Manson today, it’s often impossible to understand how he managed to basically form a cult around himself—a cult whose members eventually killed nine people under his direction. Cline’s superb new novel is an exploration of a fictional version of the 1960s Manson (in the form of a character named Russell Hadrick), and the psychology of cults as an unhappy young girl meets some glamorous older girls and gets swept up in a lifestyle that initially appears free and exciting. Cline gets under the skin of how, exactly, a sociopath convinces vulnerable people—mostly young women—he holds the answers to their unhappiness, and how this pivots to horrifying violence during a period normally referred to as The Summer of Love. The most disturbing aspect of the novel remains its real-life inspiration.
In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume
Historical Inspiration: The Umbrella of Death
Blume’s first adult novel in years takes inspiration from events she personally witnessed as a child: an uncanny trio of plane crashes that hit the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the space of two months in the early 1950s. This grim and remarkable series of disasters was caused by the configuration of runways at Newark Airport, which was referred to as the Umbrella of Death in the wake of the tragedies. The airport was closed until a new runway was completed that directed air traffic away from Elizabeth. Blume’s story centers on residents of the city dealing with both the immediate disasters of the crashes and their long aftermath.
Psycho, by Robert Bloch
Historical Inspiration: Ed Gein
Robert Bloch claimed he wasn’t aware of Ed Gein and the gruesome murders Gein committed when he wrote Psycho, the novel that was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into the iconic film starring Anthony Perkins. But Bloch was living just a few miles away when Gein was arrested in 1957, and the details of Gein’s horrifying acts—which included wearing clothing made from the skin of his female victims, sparking the theory that Gein was making a “woman suit” so he could pretend to be his dead, domineering mother—are so close to the 1959 novel’s it’s hard to credit the coincidence. In addition to two murders Gein admitted to, he also exhumed bodies from the local graveyard to take trophies and skin from. He died from liver cancer in a psychiatric prison nearly 30 years later.
Jaws, by Peter Benchley
Historical Inspiration: Beach Haven Shark Attacks of 1916 and Frank Mundus
As with many great novels, Benchley wrote Jaws in a desperate bid for money. But the novel was far from a last-minute cash-grab; Benchley had a lifelong fascination with sharks and had long wanted to write a story based on the 1916 attacks at the Jersey Shore town of Beach Haven, when a Great White shark killed four people and injured a fifth in the space of a few weeks, terrorizing the town and threatening its booming tourism business. He also read about sport fisherman Frank Mundus, who in 1964 killed and captured a shark weighing at least 4,500 pounds—and thus inspired the character of Quint. Benchley’s story is filled with accurate details about sharks, and his deft inclusion of human characters who are just as predatory as the shark elevate the novel from pulp to a classic.
The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy
Historical Inspiration: Elizabeth Short
Ellroy’s modern classic was the book that made people sit up and take notice of him as a serious author instead of just a successful genre writer, and the novel takes its inspiration from the oldest unsolved murder in the history of Los Angeles, that of Elizabeth Short. She was nicknamed the Black Dahlia by newspapers covering her case in 1947, a case that has many theories and players but no real answers. Ellroy used the notorious murder as a jumping-off point for depicting his version of 1940s L.A. as a quagmire of corruption and sin, resulting in one of the best noir novels ever written, a story that skillfully blends fiction and fact into a mesmerizing tableau of modern horror.