December 4th, 2017

Writing Fiction Using Family History

Ann Griffin

When, in my fifties, I learned of two cousins and an aunt I had never heard of, their story was so compelling that I decided it needed to be written, and I assigned myself the task. The protagonist and antagonist were both deceased, making it impossible to write it as biography, so I opted for a fictional version of the story, set in and around World War II.

Unfortunately, half way through my first draft, an editor gave me a reality check—or, I should say, a believability check. A husband had rejected his wife for no known reason. I thought this would be a great mystery for the story, but the editor cautioned me, “Your readers will not buy ‘no reason’. Neither will an agent.”

She taught me these lessons:

  • Truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes too strange to use.
  • Fiction readers care about entertainment. They won’t know or care if the details of your non-famous family are accurate.
  • Your family, however, may well care.
  • You are writing fiction, not memoir or biography.

How much must you change a story to make it fiction?

Even though a family member familiar with the story might recognize him/herself in specific situations, the characters shouldn’t be too recognizable. If the scene containing a real event could be construed as a negative reflection of the real person, be prepared for some flak. For example, Matthew Hooton, the son of close friends during my children’s growing years, wrote Deloume Road, named after our street (Publisher: Knopf Canada; http://matthewhooton.com) It’s a lovely, disturbing book. While it is fiction about a child committing a serious crime, I recognized in his characters, people I knew. Some of those people were not happy with the result, feeling they were ridiculed. So, beware.

To modify your fictional characters, change their appearance, even their race, age, or gender. Journal in their voice, adding new facets of their personality.

To modify the plot, you simply need to follow the rules of craft. Main characters, conflict, rising tension, climax, denouement– all those rules still apply. If you follow them, I guarantee the story will take off in a very different direction from reality.

Give it time. Don’t rush to write fiction about a divorce, six months after you’ve gone through one. With time, you gain some perspective, your emotions calm down, and the people involved change, move, or even pass away.

For living people who, even modified, are close to the story, tell them what you are doing and get their permission, in writing of course. (Thanks, Kathryn Craft, for this tip.) And note, it is not possible to commit libel against the dead.

You will still need to do some research, however.

Family letters give insight into the time they were written. I was blessed to have my mother’s firsthand account of travelling to England during World War II. These details are dynamite for fiction, and I used them in my upcoming book, “Another Ocean to Cross.”

Eyewitness accounts are incredibly valuable. I found a small non-fiction book about two rather clueless young American women who toured Germany in 1938, and worked some of their experience into my manuscript. Ditto the account of a woman who worked as a nurse in North Africa during WW2.

Family photos can be a treasure trove of information about clothing, hairstyles, and furnishings.

Family member interviews, if possible. Ask them the questions no-one asks – the forbidden topics.

If you are writing about a century ago or longer, chances are you won’t have eyewitness accounts or photos. Research the period in which your story occurs. Living family members may still be shocked by what you learn.

Great sources of information:

  • Pinterest.com: But be careful that the photo you choose is what you’re looking for.
  • Online photos: Same caution applies. And if you plan to use the photo in your book, be sure to get permission.
  • Museums and local historical records.
  • Libraries, especially rare book collections.
  • Interlibrary loans.
  • Genealogical searches, such as http://ancestry.com .
  • Government statistics such as census data.
  • Biographies and memoirs.
  • Websites and organizations devoted to the time period.
  • Wikipedia.com: Be sure to click through to the quoted sources.

Beta Readers:

I caution you against using family members as beta readers. They will say, “It didn’t happen that way!”– completely missing the point.

Get writer friends, or well-read friends to look over your first draft or two, then polish it up and send it to your editor.

 

Do you have a family story that make be a good jumping-off point for your fiction? Do you have a question about using family history in a fictional work that Ann can help you with?

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About Ann 

Ann comes from a family of adventurous women. An immigrant twice herself (to Canada and to the USA,) she understands the challenges of being uprooted, and remaking a life in a new place.

Her mother, who wrote her life story which Ann blogged about in http://www.my101years.com , first inspired Ann with tales of life in the early twentieth century, so it was a natural step for Ann to begin writing when she discovered stories that needed a voice.

Her fictional yet factual, “Interview with John Middlemore” was published in the September issue of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association Magazine. Her second article for the same magazine is due out in December.

She is currently blogging behind the scenes looks at writing historical fiction, and little-known facts she unearthed doing research for her first novel, Another Ocean to Cross, which is due out in March 2018.

Ann is a dual US/Canadian citizen. She divides her time between Mesa, Arizona and Toronto, Canada, with her husband, Art, and their Old English Sheepdog. When not writing, she can be found at the golf course, or singing with her church choir.

You can reach Ann on Facebook at http://facebook.com/anngriffinwriter or on Twitter at @anngborn2write. Her website is http://anngriffinwriter.com . Her blog address is http://anngriffinwriter.com/blog

Ann will be posting information about her forthcoming book, Another Ocean to Cross, including how to pre-order. To be on her mailing list, email her at info@anngriffinwriter.com .

46 comments to Writing Fiction Using Family History

  • Nan Lundeen

    Good advice, Ann. Pat Conroy is an example of someone who mined family relationships for powerful stories.

  • Linda Chalmer Zemel

    I met Ann at a writers’ retreat, we kept up an acquaintanceship, and we roomed together at a writers’ conference a couple of years later. She is as sincere in person as she is in this article! Writing memoir and writing fiction are two completely separate endeavors but even experienced writers sometimes cross the line when they aren’t alert to it. Here, Ann outlines the red lights to look out for and the green ones to applaud. I can’t wait to read her new book about World War II. It is bound to be full of intriguing story lines, respectful of her characters, and well put together.

  • Excellent suggestions and inspirations to use family history for some fascinating fiction. Thank you!

  • Fae Rowen

    My mom and dad fell in love by writing letters while my father was overseas in the Army. Four years later, when he got out and returned home, he crossed several state borders to meet her, taking a ring. She said yes. I have all their letters. Though I’ve never read them, I’ve always thought they’d be the basis for a great romance story.

    • Ooo, that sounds like writer’s gold! You have amazing moral strength to have not read them. Although if your parents are alive, I understand. Sometimes the most intriguing details and secrets emerge after a family member passes away, as was the case with the cousins and aunt I had not known existed, until an uncle died, and left behind a key letter that blew open the family closet, exposing skeletons that surprised us all.

    • How can you NOT read them, Fae?!

      • Fae Rowen

        Seems weird to read what my mom and dad wrote to each other. Knowing them, I know there was nothing “racy,” but it still feels like a bit of an invasion of privacy. Maybe sometime when you visit, Laura, we’ll look at them…

        • It’s doubtful there is much “racy” in them as censors read all the letters before they were sent so that no locations were mentioned in them in case the enemy got hold of the letters. If there was a location, it was blacked out before being sent to loved ones back home.

    • I didn’t know that story, Fae! And I’m with Laura…why haven’t you read them yet? Does it just make you too sad? I read stuff from my mom now to feel closer to her.

  • Two in my historical fiction series are based on writings saved by my mother. “The Late Sooner” is based on my great-grandfather’s one-line-a-day diary as he settled in the Oklahoma Territory in 1889. The second in the series is “The Late Sooner’s Daughter” using family stories as the resource. I based “Hard Times in the Heartland” in part on my dad’s letters sent to Mom and me while he served in the U.S. Army in France and Germany during WW II. Don’t let those old treasures get away. They are priceless first-hand accounts!

    • Sally, you’re so right, and congratulations on using your family documents so effectively! Many people, when going through the old papers of deceased relatives, throw away much that can be useful. Birth certificates, marriage and baptismal certificates, photos, passports with stamps inside, and of course, letters, are indeed priceless. The story in my upcoming novel, Another Ocean to Cross, came to be because my late uncle did not throw out a very important letter. When his executor discovered it after his death, it revealed many secrets he had kept for years; even, we believe, from his second wife. Yet it gave me the fodder for an incredible story.

    • WOW! What wonderful items to have in your family history.

      • Exactly. My second book is based on my grandfather’s story. He was a British Home Child (see http://www.bchara.org) separated from his family at the age of 8. Ten percent of Canadians are descended from others like him, and I have his departure photo, the only photo of him as a child.

  • jamesr403

    Excellent post, Ann! And timely. I’m not writing a historical novel — yet — but cleaning out boxes of papers over Thanksgiving I came across a stack of small snapshots of my father when he was a Marine recruit at Camp Kearney (close to Sand Diego) in 1936. Needless to say, I lost some time that day. All your suggestions are good. I would only add: be careful with research. It can suck you in and keep you from writing, because it’s fascinating (my Dad’s pictures) and easier than writing.
    Thanks again.

    • James, what a wonderful find! My guess is you’ll be writing historical fiction or non-fiction soon, with that treasure trove of your father’s photos. My strategy to avoid getting sucked too deep into research is to do what I need for each stage of writing. Then, while editing and revising, I always find places where I need more detail, or I question if the detail is accurate enough, so back to research I go. In your case, photos are marvelous, but you’ll want his military records, whatever you can get your hands on, and any histories already written about Camp Kearney in the 1930s. Best of luck, and please let me know how you are doing.

  • Hi Ann, great to see you here at WITS! These are all great tips. Even when accessing first-person accounts of strangers, though, I recommend using them for inspiration only and switching up the details. Here’s why.

    I was several years into working in the book that would become my debut and wanted a prank that a girl largely raised in hospitals might play on a nurse. The laughter that would ensue would be so bonding and healing for my characters. I googled, immediately found, and placed one in my story, in which a girl wants privacy to collect a urine sample, offers it to the nurse after switching it for ginger ale, then swigs it down. Thank god I read Jodi Picoult’s MY SISTER’S KEEPER before mine was published, because we had lifted the exact same scene. Since hers was already a bestseller, that would not have gone well for me!

    Second piece of advice: go several pages deep into search results before plucking that inspiration!

    • Thanks, Kathryn. I’m thrilled to be here.

      Oh my goodness, I’ve heard of that urine/ginger ale trick too, but in a different context. Jodi Picoult was clearly not the only one who used it, but who needs the inconvenience of a plagiarism lawsuit? And I completely agree. Use the first person account as background and make up your own details.

      My historical writers group here in Arizona had one meeting where we shared sources for our research. Several members are university professors, so you can imagine the depths to which they went. I felt positively lazy, but then I’m not researching 3000 year old history.

  • Very interesting take on writing fiction based on fact. I am writing a novel based on my mother’s life. I am finding it very therapeutic. I am fictionalising my characters and am not at all concerned if they recognise themselves. I believe in having my voice and telling my own truth and that is my main objective, To live with silence and shame is debilitating and harmful. Thank you Ann though for an interesting piece. Warm wishes.

  • Having to deal with the backlash from family members has kept me from writing about some of my more interesting relatives. I think I’m hoping for some future time when I can write more freely because as you pointed out, the dead can’t be libeled. Sounds cowardly when I write it out, but then, I know my relatives. Thanks for the thought-provoking take on family historical fiction.

    • I used to think my family was normal. Now I know there’s no such thing. You can use the time your relatives are still around to grill them for information. With subtlety, of course.

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Thanks so much for this great info, Ann. I write memoir, which is truly difficult because of what you mentioned here. I also find historical fiction intriguing. Sometimes I don’t know where the truth ends and the story begins. I will connect with you online and follow your blog.

    http://victoriamarielees.blogspot.com

  • […] Scott Bell constructs a scene template for new writers, and Ann Griffin writes about writing fiction using family history, while Jared Reck examines the fine line between humor and […]

  • This was my WITS debut, and I’m so thrilled. Hope to be back here again soon. Keep writing!

  • Judith Starkston

    Excellent post! I’m looking forward to our exploration of this topic together when the Arizona Historical Novel Society explores it. You’ve raised such an essential point–where the boundaries of fiction and what really happened have to lie in order to tell a great tale. Thanks!

  • Having just published my family history – no short winded affair – decades in the making, I have pinpointed a couple of really interesting family ancestors to spend time on.
    I can’t believe they did so much without all the “necessities” of today like plane flights, even trains, the internet, email for quick replies etc.
    Thank you Ann, for your article – it’s come just at the right time.

  • Garrett Hutson

    Great suggestions! I have often considered using episodes in my family’s past a jumping-off points for a novel, but have not been brave enough to tackle that. Instead, I’ve taken a more indirect route, using little pieces of things and weaving them into other stories–a character might have similar attitudes to my grandmother, for example. You’ve provided some other things to think about. Thanks!

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