‘Loosely based on real life’ - How to turn fact into fiction
You’re a writer with a personal story to tell, only it is not your own. You sift through boxes of private letters written decades before and wonder whether it is right to use them to enhance your narrative. Your grandfather signs off an account of his only sister’s life with a note that it may be put into the public domain one day. You decide that you, out of all his descendants will be the one to do it.
You have a decision to make. Are you writing a novel based on real life, a biography or creative non-fiction?
If it’s a novel, you have the imaginative freedom to pick and choose, elaborate, set scenes and put words in characters’ mouths. It is up to you how far to use or stray from the facts.
In a biography, you must write like a historian and curtail your imaginative leaps of faith. For creative non-fiction you use the narrative techniques of a novelist, sticking to known facts to claim authenticity.
Key elements for writing a biography:
- Facts you can prove
- Gaps acknowledged
- Sources quoted
- Speculation limited and labelled
- The technique and accuracy of a historian
Creative non-fiction, life writing:
- Character evoked through dialogue and points of view
- Setting and atmosphere created
- Facts and events dramatised
In turning someone else’s life into a novel, pure and simple, are you manipulating their story for your own gain or are you honouring their legacy?
These were the ethical dilemmas I faced when I started writing, A THIN SHEET OF GLASS. If I was to turn fact into fiction, stay faithful to the essence of my great-aunt’s life, her personality and her tragedy, I would have to find a way to reconcile them. Where should the focus lie – on her illness or her achievements? In the end, I resolved these issues by pitching myself fully into the historical novel, accepting the freedom that allowed and running with it.
A novel based on real life will always be an interpretation of that life, strands chosen for their drama, their relevance to the plot rather than to history.
A historical novelist’s sliding scale:
- Fact (events that took place, words that have been recorded at the time, written or spoken, historical dates that interact with your characters, small details based on historical research and multiple sources)
- Probable (likely to have happened but no definite record of it)
- Possible (could have happened, sort of activity your characters might have taken part in)
- Entirely fictional but relevant
- Complete fabrication
You may base your characters on accounts from the time you are writing, but, unless you’re using letters or quotes, you’re always putting your own words into their mouths. They act as you believe they would have acted or may have acted or could have acted. They visit places and have confrontations that suit your plot, whether these are reported or invented.
You carry out research into settings, clothes, politics, food, as much nitty gritty as you can muster up to give your narrative that authentic feel. It is always your interpretation, the strands you choose to pick up.
Ben Elton uses biographical reflections at the end of his novel TWO BROTHERS, to set out the background, the family history that inspired his story. He claims the freedom of a novelist to explore, expand and elaborate whilst acknowledging there is a truth behind the story that must be respected.
If someone else wrote a novel, biography or creative account of my great-aunt’s life, they would come up with something entirely different. There are multiple aspects of her life and character that remain hidden from view in my novel. There are other ways of weaving events together.
I have tried to stay true to the essence of her story, to portray her courage and humanity as well as her underlying insecurity. With my family’s permission, I have used excerpts from real letters to show the intensity of her feelings and of those who knew her. I have taken a few bare strands and elaborated extensively. I have created fiction from fact and fact from fiction. I have learnt that, as the boundaries become looser, a story takes on a life of its own.
I don’t have the right to claim her story as my own and yet, somehow, I have. She has launched me into the world of writing, helped me realise my dream of becoming an author. I can only hope she would have approved of the novel I have produced.
Did you identify with any of the points above?
Have a personal story to tell and unsure which form of narrative to choose?
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