Plotting Fake IDby Hazel Edwards
The Internet Writing Journal, December 2002
Jotted as the novel was being plotted across a couple of years to explain the creative process of research and characterization...
"Do not open until after my death" was printed in black on the package. So, I opened it.This is the start of Fake ID, a novel intended as a style successor to my YA "thriller" Stalker. Rarely do I get a draft opening which I keep in the final version, but in this case, I might. While it's important to be dramatic initially, it's also a challenge to sustain that conflict level for a novel.
At your Gran's funeral, you don't expect to find out that she wasn't really your Gran. Fake I.D. that's what my Gran had. For years and years.
Working titles usually change, but the duality of Fake ID, a term which young people often use for ID to get into night-clubs and bars when they are under the drinking age, makes it relevant. Alternatively it could be False ID.
"Where did the idea come from?" is the most common question writers are asked.
As my disabled cousin's guardian, I've been dealing with trustees and indirectly learnt of the amazing stories behind some wills, or the hassles caused by lack of a will. Intriguing stories of assumed or lost identities are buried in files. After getting a security clearance, I've been researching with the "geni" (genealogists) sleuths at State Trustees. They track the descendants of those who die intestate, (without a will), until the estate money runs out or they find a genuine relative, (substantiated sometimes by DNA testing), who becomes the beneficiary.
Protagonist Zoe will be the 15 year old grand daughter seeking the "Gran" facts of her family history for medical reasons and her school assignment. My fictional thriller will revolve around a 60-ish political activist, who in her mid twenties assumed another woman's identity to get into Australia and how and why she sustained the fake ID.
Like 3-D brain exercise, I'm jotting this "think piece" to sort out where I am going in the novel. Posing questions to myself is a useful discipline, and maybe an illuminating contrast once the novel is finished. Plots and characters often take on lives of their own. For me, the beginning stages of research and plotting lead to the pleasure of creating something multi-layered which wasn't there before, and yet sounds plausible. Fiction must have an internal logic and a thriller must be even more carefully structured, using suspense as the hooks. That's why the time sequence may not be chronological and there may need to be flashbacks.
Is illusion necessarily false? How much do the labels matter? Are people's differing perceptions of the same events and relationships equally valid? Are people always who they claim to be, are they "faking" or after a while do they "believe" only their version of events? If they say, "I'm an activist," or any "-ist" often enough, do they believe it? What's the difference between a "fact" and a "belief"?
All these clouds of thoughts are looming around my head. I keep putting off writing the 1,000 words per day, to complete the first draft before I leave for France in July 2000, but I must start soon. There are different kinds of procrastination: the lazy kind and the thinking kind. Occasionally, the thoughts need time to shape into the right story thread formations. Thoughts like:
- How does someone maintain a "personality" and not just a name-label for many decades? As a kid, I loved reading espionage tales about spies. Why they did it "under-cover" and "long-term", intrigued me. I loved reading about master spy Kim Philby. Was being a traitor more than a game of treachery? Was it an emotional and intellectual exercise?
- Were the political motives altruistic or were they just "kidding" themselves? Not being able to "open up" to anyone meant constant intellectual monitoring of small details. The permanent acting.
- Would you become the other person? Would you "match" in ways other than the necessary dates, height , weight etc.? How could you emotionally "take-on" another person's life. Where did that leave them, if they weren't dead?
- Would you need to have a very logical mind to maintain the multiple identities? How would you remember to whom you'd told what?
One of the "genis" who specialized in estate/property management showed me the elaborate chart on which she'd tracked the 46 assumed identities, properties and money transactions of "Jane" a "con" woman who left millions, and no will. What a devious, but multi-layered mind. A woman of color, she had a white South African identity card in the number of an native African, with her photo, and her so-called "age" which was more than a decade younger than her biological body. What a lot to remember! Had she planned all that or had it evolved?
A "shady lady" "Jane's" motive was greed, and the accumulation of money via shady dealings, whereas my "Magda" needed to have a more admirable motive for a complex life of deceit. Being an idealistic "political" in her twenties, with the potential to being blackmailed or deported because of some kind of documentary evidence, such as a photo or secret police report would be more credible. Even "fear" of being exposed would be sufficient motive.
A private detective I interviewed for other reasons, claimed that it was simpler for a woman to "fade" into a new background because she could change her physical appearance more easily. Clothes style. Hair. Make-up. What caught fake ID women was documentation in connection with their children. If they enrolled the children for any benefits, or for schooling, they could be tracked, even if the surname had changed. Changing countries requires documentation, and that's when the new identity would be assumed.
Some of my "clues" would need to revolve around "documents" such as photos, birth, marriage or death certificates and maybe paintings, postcards, ID papers or blood donor cards and family albums. A medical record was another possibility as evidence of genetic links or their absence.
The "genis" explained that most European documentation for births, marriages and deaths centres on the town hall, and that often town names changed or were over-run during wartime. Confusion about data such as birth and death dates would be more likely then. It might be possible to take over the identity of another woman, as long as a genuine birth certificate could be used as the starting data. So it would be necessary to be superficially similar in physical details like height. Coloring could be changed. Age differences didn't matter as much as the woman became older, but five years difference for a teenager would matter. A Eurasian woman was another mysterious possibility. Someone of mixed race or dual cultures could pass more easily in some societies but not in others.
The motive for keeping the secret needed to be extremely strong. Sex, politics, money or religion are often the strong motivations. A secret to hide? Maybe a secret with political implications? Or could it be merely the "fear" that something might be revealed? To make the plot plausible I needed some documentary evidence which Zoe would find. Could it be an old photo with "Magda" arm-in-arm with a noted "political" leader of the times who has now fallen into disrepute? Could Madga have been a student editor of a university newspaper? If so, in what country? If she were about 20 then, what would the date have been? Who had a revolution about then?
1956 was the Hungarian Revolution, when the Communists took over. It was also the year Melbourne held the Olympics. I rang an Hungarian acquaintance whose family had abandoned property in Budapest pre-'56, and whose grand daughter had been permitted to use some of the restitution money when she visited. My acquaintance talked of her engineer father being forced to work for the Secret police and then being afraid, post-war, that when others talked of "secrets" to the Americans for payment, he would be assumed to have talked. And he didn't. So fear kept him from talking or returning.
Deciding to use the '56 Hungarian Revolution as a significant date narrowed the research. A real case the genis called "False Maria", involved a girlfriend assuming the wife's identity to exit the country in the political turmoil of '56, but the real wife dying in '63 as verified during a check by Red Cross's international search, instigated by a brother. Facts like this could be dramatized for fiction too.
Migration Selection Documents gave the name, town and birthplace. Often there would be later documents relating to naturalisation. I'd need to use these as clues for Magda's past.
I'd have to be careful that "Magda" didn't take over from "Zoe" as the major character. The name "Zoe" means life and is age-appropriate, but the "Gran" needed an "older" name, or names. "Con" men or women with multiple identities often kept to similar initials, but maybe "Magda" had no choice because she had to assume an existing name and personality?
If Zoe needs to admire the older woman even grudgingly, then Magda needs to have done something altruistic, or at least admirable. Being a "con" artist, unless there are extenuating circumstances doesn't seem enough. She would need some fascinating hobbies, skills or attitudes.
Frankly I don't always have my twist worked out at the beginning. It evolves. Maybe the twist could be Zoe's fear of carrying a genetic problem, then finding out that her grandmother is not the "name" she claimed to be. But maybe Magda is still her biological grandmother. However, is her medical record accurate or was that false too? So I need to find a genetic motive running down the female line. More research needed.
My "genis" told me of a case, where DNA matching was to be used to prove that the claimants were the children of the woman who died two years before. If the DNA matched, and the documentary evidence such as birth certificates were valid, they would claim the millions left when the woman died without a will. Since the woman died two years ago, how could they get a sample for a DNA match? That's where the "genis" skill showed. Researching, they found the woman had a biopsy done, a year before her death. The pathologist still had the sample which was kept for five years. They had cells against which to check the claimants. Brilliant. What "biological samples" from Magda might be available, that Zoe could track, even after the grandmother's death or disappearance?
The next technical problem was whether to open with Gran's funeral, which meant she was actually dead, or have a memorial service, so that she was technically dead, but there was no body for checking, because she'd vanished. That would leave the possibility during the story that she was still alive somewhere and would heighten the suspense.
I needed to check police Missing Person's procedures. When was someone presumed dead, even there was no body? After how long and in what circumstances? An explosion? Lost at sea? Washed out to sea? Air crash? A bad fire? But I knew that forensic scientists were arson experts, so that was unlikely.
A disaster of some kind? Train smash? But there would need to be a substitute body? And what would be the reason that at this particular time, "Magda" wanted to vanish? Had she "set it up" or was it coincidental?
Another possible "twist" had arisen during my research. A "defacto" husband had left his estate "to my wife" but the woman with whom he was living, was not his legal wife. So his original "wife" or "their" original children would inherit. This could have been prevented if he had "named" her by her actual names, rather than by the role of his wife. Could "Magda" who had been living as a wife, be legally by-passed? If so, why should it matter? Was a large amount of money involved as a possible inheritance or did it relate to controlling patents or formula for the family business? What should I do about getting the middle generation (Zoe's Mum) out of the way so the story focuses on the teenager?
"Agnes" was my father's mother and only in the last few years I've known anything about her. Glaswegian born, she apparently travelled to Russia and was probably an active Socialist, despite her seven children (I thought she had six and my father was the eldest. She didn't and he wasn't.)
Recently I'd been sent a "scan" by email attachment of a family photo including my father when he was about ten. But the greatest shock was that I was looking at my own face, in the face of his mother "Agnes". Genetic links. Maybe I could transfer this emotional experience to my character Zoe?
The "genis" also mentioned occasional "matching" where it was physically obvious that people were closely related when an adult child looked like a parent. Maybe I could give my characters distinctive physical traits like red hair?
Getting started is always the challenge. To "think my way into the story" I look back over my notes, "high-lighting" phrases or things which could be used as clues or twists. Red herrings such as the loop in writing a name causing Miles to be mistaken for Giles and thousands of hours wasted researching in the wrong part of the alphabet, is something I'll use as a false clue and a twist in the plot but not necessarily with those names.
Zoe will be Internet familiar , and simply "track" electronically, but she may need a computer "nerd" friend to enable her to discuss why she is following certain leads.
Perhaps there is some doubt about Zoe's mother's natural father. i.e. Zoe's grandfather. Maybe Magda was pregnant or thought to be pregnant and maybe the disgraced "political" activist in the documents or photographs is Zoe's grandfather? Were they divorced? Is Magda a bigamist? Or is it sufficient if Zoe worries she might be?
An unexpected phone call from a charming , elderly Hungarian count. He'd heard from my "geni" I needed help with naming my characters. Had I realized that Hungary was a stratified society where your name, sport and occupation typed you according to class. Fencing and riding were aristocratic (and not paid). Football was working class. Swimming was a cross-class sport. A most informative half hour and I changed the names to those typical of the class, while Magda was a cross-over name.
No more excuses.
Now I must start writing...
Hazel Edwards 11.4.2000
It's now July 17th and I leave for France in three days time. For once I have not kept to my writing deadline. The shape and length of the book has changed. The publisher would prefer a 15,000 word crime story for 10-14 year olds. I'm happy about writing shorter, but the idea/theme is quite large.
I needed a stronger motive than Zoe's school history assignment, for Gran suddenly revealing her secret past.
While in France, a TV news item gave me a link for my plot between present day and 1956. Apparently, Hungarian secret police files had just been opened under an amendment to the law to investigate paid informers. Many "informers" who thought their names would be kept secret, were now revealed. Journalists' reports about former dissidents who had earlier collaborated with the communists, recruiting 20 year olds to work with the spy media, was a fact. This could provide the impetus for Gran suddenly being worried that mis-information would trouble her descendants like Zoe and that she should leave a honest record of what really happened.
Another plot link came as we walked past a photo-restorer shop in the French town of Nante. Digitally enhanced photos were displayed in the shop window, showing how dead or missing family members could be "inserted" or "grafted" into an existing photo. (Or others could be deleted!) How could I include this in my Fake ID plot? If Pa's son had recently made contact with Magda via a Red Cross Internet search, did Magda want to acknowledge him -- especially as his own mother (the original Madga) was now dead? Would Magda arrange for a photo of Pa's family to include a digitally enhanced son? And maybe even the original first wife Madga? But why would she do this? And should it arrive at a suitably dramatic moment after her death, either in the letter box or via an answer phone message from the photographic shop to come and collect it?
Each fact needed to be a clue used by Zoe as the main crime investigator. Otherwise the emphasis would be upon Gran/Madga .
Next I listed the facts, (as clues), decided on how Zoe would find them, and then the significance to the plot. This was getting complicated.
Post Script; October 9th 2000
Concentrated writing over September finished the book which took months longer than expected. Frankly, I felt I was suffering researchitus in that I'd learnt so many fascinating facts, I wanted to include them all, but they needed to be dramatized and fit the character. Kath my "geni" checked the facts, and a few procedural changes were made on the final draft, especially relating to inheritance laws. She also kindly mapped me a family history tree for my fictitious characters. A colleague said I had too many questions and ... which I tend to use for suspense. I fixed these.
The publishers would like me to length Fake ID to at least 25,000 words to fit their Takeaway series because they feel the book does not contain a "crime" to fit their crime-wave series. Maybe I was not specific enough about Gran's actions.
I re-read and admit the ending is abrupt. Rather than go back and insert extra material, perhaps it would be better merely to extend the story by 1-2 chapters and provide a more emotionally satisfying ending for Zoe's relationship based on the memories of her grandmother. But what else could happen? The grandmother is dead. Maybe the mother should return and share her interpretations of what might have happened with Madga? Maybe the real story is in Zoe coming to terms with her body and her life, and so the emphasis should be upon her and Luke?
So I create working titles for the extra chapters, so at least I've got something. Then I have a brainwave. I decide that Zoe should email her deceased grandmother as an emotionally satisfying way of coming to terms with her past. I want to parallel the Luke-Zoe relationship with the Gran and Tibor to show that maybe personal relationships when you're young and passionate may take priority over global issues.
This is an honest account of the process by which a novel evolves. Maybe you'd now like to read Fake ID (Lothian) and evaluate what has changed.
**Hazel Edwards is the award-winning author of over 100 children's books, including
There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof
Eating Cake (Hodder Headline UK),
Duty Free (Lothian) and Fake ID
(Lothian). A frequent public speaker, Edwards also
writes adult non-fiction, teacher educational material, junior
and adolescent fiction and scripts. Her work has
been translated into Finnish, Braille, Japanese and Chinese.
She lives in Australia.
Just in Case...You Visit the Children's Court created with Michael Salmon is a new venture into factual cartoon style books. In 2000, Hazel was the writer-in-residence in Antarctica at Australia's Casey Station. You can visit her website at hazeledwards.com.