When I first came across the true story that inspired my second novel Here Lies Daniel Tate, I knew instantly that I wanted to adapt it into a YA novel. I say “adapt” because I knew there were lots of elements of the true story I would never be able to use. They were simply too incredible to be believed in a fictional format.
In Here Lies Daniel Tate, a Canadian con artist a little past his eighteenth birthday poses as a younger boy in order to scam his way into shelters and halfway houses for minors. He feels cared for in these places and prefers them to adult shelters or sleeping on the street. To get himself out of a bind at one of these shelters, he claims that he’s actually a sixteen-year-old named Daniel Tate who was kidnapped in California six years before. The lie is only supposed to be a temporary fix, but it quickly snowballs out of his control. Soon he’s going home with the Tates to begin a new life, not realizing that Daniel’s family has secrets even darker than his own.
The true story is so much crazier.
The real Daniel Tate was Nicholas Patrick Barclay. (In my story, Nicholas and Patrick are the names of Daniel’s two brothers.) He was thirteen when he went missing, and he was only gone for three years before he was miraculously discovered in a foreign children’s care home.
But not just over the border in Canada. In Spain.
In my novel, when Daniel’s older sister Lex goes to Canada to see the boy claiming to be her brother, it’s easy to understand how she could be fooled by the con artist in front of her. Danny went missing so long ago, when he was only ten, that it would be hard to know what exactly he would look like at sixteen, and the boy in front of her had the same color hair and eyes as her brother and the same birthmark on the back of his hand.
In reality, when Nicholas Barclay’s sister went to Spain to see her missing brother, the person she was confronted with was this:
Frederic Bourdin, a Frenchman widely known as “the Chameleon.”
At the time he impersonated Nicholas, he was twenty-three and had been posing as orphaned teenagers across Europe for years. Two years before he had spoken about his scams on French television. But despite being seven years older than Nicholas, speaking with a heavy French accent, and having brown eyes and dark, thinning hair when Nicholas had been blue-eyed and blond, the Barclays accepted him and brought him home to Texas.
If I had tried to write something like this, most readers would – rightly – roll their eyes and throw the book aside. Goodreads would have a field day. It’s what really happened, but it’s too unbelievable for fiction.
After conning the Barclays and the Tates, both Bourdin and my narrator settle into lives as their new selves. They start school, meet girls they like, bond with their new families, and begin to suspect their new lives are built on more than just their own dark secret. The Barclays’ secret, it seems, lead to the swamp; the Tates’ leads to a desert.
There are other differences, too. Bourdin’s story of where he was during the years Nicholas was missing are necessarily more outlandish. After all, he has to explain how he ended up in Spain with a French accent and different colored eyes. My narrator doesn’t have as high a hurdle to clear, thank goodness. And my “Danny” fears attention – dodging reporters and photographers, terrified of his lie being exposed – whereas Bourdin relished the spotlight. Indeed, it was his thirst for the limelight that ultimately led to his exposure as a sham. A private investigator who interviewed him for a television spot became suspicious and his investigation eventually unmasked Bourdin as a fraud. Maybe if he’d had a little more of my narrator’s fear of being caught, he never would have been.
Bourdin went to prison for six years for impersonating Nicholas Barclay. After serving his sentence, he returned to Europe where he immediately began the scam all over again, stealing the identities of more missing teens even as he was well into his thirties. Now he’s happily married with five children of his own.
As for my Danny, well, his ending is very different. And unlike all the other details of this story, it’s something I could only get away with in fiction.