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 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.
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 makes 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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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 firstname.lastname@example.org .