From family memoir to historical novel - true stories well-told
Updated: Jul 8
Memoirs, while they might be interesting to the family, are generally tedious to others – often consisting of disjointed anecdotes or plodding chronological events, and devoid of the kind of literary tension that is key to holding the interest of a reader.
In the literary world, novels that are based on a memoir, biography, or historic event are classified as creative non-fiction, meaning that they use literary techniques to tell true stories. Lee Gutkind, often considered as the Godfather behind creative nonfiction, describes the genre as “true stories, well told”.
As I turn our family memoir to historical novel with themes, story arcs and character development, I often find myself pondering to what extent it is okay to make assumptions about characters’ personalities, thoughts, relationships, and the words they spoke. How does one straddle fiction and non-fiction effectively and without bending or distorting the truth?
These are my own three rules for turning a family memoir to a historical novel
1. I'm careful not to invent (even minor) situational details that may contradict or distort checkable facts of history. This is off-putting for readers who may know more about the time and place of the story than I do. Fact-checking ensures that any literary liberties taken do not contradict documented facts. I use primary sources to provide an accurate representation of places, times, events, and the perspectives of those who experienced history in the present moment, as well as historians' retrospective views.
2. I avoid overwhelming the story narrative with excessive historical narration, long-winded dialogues, or detailed thoughts or flashbacks that may sound unnatural and disrupt the flow. I prefer to present the historical context in sidebars of captioned vintage images. As the plot and emotional pitch of the story unfold, these minor strategic interruptions can draw the reader into a different immersive experience of history, before resuming the emotional rollercoaster and the next scene that moves the story forward.
Maryrose Wood, "Path of the Story-teller" coach, refers to this technique as "pattern interruption," which creates an oscillation in the reader's emotional state and deepens their immersive state.
3. When writing a novel about “ordinary people”, I feel that family historical accuracy is less critical. This is to be expected given the gaps in the documentation and certain assumptions about characters and motives. On the flip side, this gives me the liberty to weave the episodes that have been passed down through the generations into a coherent narrative.
Among the cast of characters in my stories are invented ‘extras’ - extended family members, servants, people working in the shops and trades, work colleagues, and school friends, who represent a cross-section of ordinary people from various social backgrounds or involved in various economic activities, political or social movements. I do however, disclose any invented characters or sub-plots in an “Author’s note.” I once read a book that sounded like an authentic memoir only to discover through a third-party review that it was a work of fiction. Although the historical context was well-researched, I found this lack of disclosure by the author disconcerting.