How Closely Should Writers Stick to the Facts?

Many fiction writers like to base their stories to some degree on real life—things that personally happened to them, news articles, magazine tabloids, real people, or past events. We draw inspiration from many sources and pull them together for our stories.

That’s only natural.

In fact, my first two published books are based on real heroic women of the past. The Preacher’s Bride is set in 1650’s England and is inspired by Elizabeth Bunyan, the wife of the prolific writer John Bunyan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress.

My second book, The Doctor’s Lady, is set in 1830’s America and is inspired by Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel overland across the United States to reach Oregon. If you were to travel to South Pass Wyoming today, you’d find a monument there in her honor (see it on The Doctor’s Lady board on Pinterest).

After reading both of my books, Lisa Bartelt recently asked me this: “I'm curious about what you did in your books. You based the story on real life people and their experiences but changed their names. Did you do that so you can take more literary license or so that people don't confuse it with a 100 percent accurate historical account?

Lisa brought up a great question! In fact, readers ask me that exact question quite often during speaking engagements or Skype sessions. Why did I change the names of the characters?

It raises the question many writers face: When we’re basing our stories on something that’s true (or partly true), how carefully should we stick to the facts? And how much liberty can we take?

My response: Do our best to use the framework of what really happened as a starting place. But then take as much liberty as we need.

No I’m not advocating adding in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school lunches in the 1800’s when they weren’t “invented” until World War II. We need to be accurate with facts and details that have to do with our time periods.

But . . .

When it comes to the STORY, we have to remember we’re writing fiction, and that in crafting our stories, we need the freedom to shape reality.

Let me explain further. Here are three reasons why I don’t stick one hundred percent to real life events and people:

1. To broaden my reading audience.

When my agent and I were in the process of working out my book deal with my publisher, one of the things that kept coming up was how much was I willing to change the story? My publisher didn’t want to try to market and sell my books as fictionalized biographies (which is essentially what they were in their original format). They believed (and rightly so) that a book listed as a “biography” would turn away a good population of fiction readers who might otherwise buy the book.

In hindsight, I can see that this was very smart thinking on the part of my publisher. I’m reaching a wider audience. The books please those who simply want an entertaining reading experience. But those who want to learn more about the story can read the author note at the end where I fill readers in on what really happened and also what I invented.

2. To allow for more flexibility within the story.

Taking a looser approach to real happenings and people also allowed me to shape the stories the way I needed to. For example, in The Preacher’s Bride, I had to shorten the time frame of the book by a year (otherwise it would have dragged on too long).

In The Doctor’s Lady I had to leave out a number of the stops that the travelers made on the journey overland West. If I’d put into the book everything that really happened, I would have had a 500 page tome.

Let’s face it, real life happens in a much different time frame than fiction. What takes us a lifetime to learn or experience, needs to happen within the span of months (or even weeks) in our books.

3. To keep the story from being boring.

I’m going to say it, even though I may stir up some controversy: Real life is too boring for fiction.

I believe fiction must use real life as stepping stones but ultimately must transcend it. In other words, the things we research (whether the past or present), or even our own experiences, are usually too dull to entertain anyone but our grandmas.

Yes, fiction starts with real life—that’s where we glean ideas. But ultimately, compelling stories must take our readers into a world that’s bigger, more colorful, more alive, and more self-aware than anything we could ever experience on earth.

Every fiction story has an element of fantasy to it, no matter the genre. That’s what makes the reading experience so fulfilling. Because we long to lose ourselves in a something that goes beyond the ordinary.

So, what do you think? How how carefully should writers stick to the facts? And how much liberty can we take? And do you agree that real life is too boring for fiction?

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