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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?

26 comments:

  1. I agree that MOST everybody's life is too boring for fiction. I know mine is. And I love my life boring. I don't want to go through some of the things we put our characters through.

    However, I think people crave purpose and passion. And as we seek both of those things in real life, we definitely expect it in our fiction.

    As far as sticking to the facts? It's difficult to be 100% accurate. I'm writing a story now that has a little bit of science to it, and though I'm trying to stay fairly accurate, the novel is also paranormal. Therefore, in order to keep it exciting, I don't get bogged down too much into the factual part - just enough facts to keep it "real" and believable. Make sense?

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  2. Makes sense, Heather! I think it's important for writers to keep the story top priority. Yes, we need to weave in factual details here and there, but we can't get bogged down with it.

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  3. I'm one who doesn't stick to the tiny historical facts. A lot of it probably has to do with my dislike of research. When I find myself spending too much time looking for a certain detail that I can't seem to find, I remind myself I'm writing a fiction book, not a non-fiction book. If I wanted to be strapped down by a zillion details, I'd write non-fiction.

    Another thing to consider is that popular fiction settings are often romanticized. You'll find time periods such as Regency England terribly unjust and unfair to most of the people who were living. Yet what gets written about? The grand lives of the Ton, not the loom workers who were rioting.

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  4. Great post Jody :-) In my WIP...I think I've been over zealous in trying to get exact details. I know the details are important but probably the excitement of the story itself should reign supreme:) I like what you said about keeping the story flexible. That's a good takeaway for me...thanks for your help!

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  5. Thanks for this post, Jody!

    I agree. I think even the most exciting real life story runs the risk of being too boring for fiction. I love the idea of using the framework of what really happened as a starting place.

    I just started Rosslyn Elliott's Fairer than Morning. On the back of the book it says it's "a work of fiction inspired by a real family in American history." That made me want to read it all the more! It just adds that special something. :)

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  6. I stick to historical facts, things in the past that are immovable, like the Prince Regent's ascendance to the throne in 1811, his father's madness, his sister's death, and what-not, however, I take great license with the people of the time.

    History paints Prince George as an intelligent ego-centric dandy, but in my books, I allow him to have more positive character traits than history allows. I make him more "human".

    I don't think in writing historical fiction (fiction being the operative word) that we need to seriously stick to the confines of what it tells us about the characters contained therein. I believe we can take license to adapt them to what we need them to be in our stories.

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  7. Hi Jody, great post as always. I really agree with point 3 - real life has some great stories and using them as inspiration is a great way to create great stories. I think provided you get the atmosphere right, and the technical details (like your peanut butter suggestion!) people don't mind a bit of artistic licence! Your publisher is right - most people want a good story, not just a history lesson.

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  8. Thanks for your post, Jody! I am just beginning to follow the writing dream and I was going to ask you about this very thing! I recently came across a story about a family in history that intrigued me but I knew I would need to add more to make it a an entertaining read. Thanks for your advice! So funny it came at the exact time I needed it!

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  9. Like you said, I think it depends what you're writing and what audience it's marketed for. If it's marketed as fiction, take liberties if you need to. Readers don't mind if you change the facts as long as you're honest with them about it. But if you're marketing it as nonfiction or biography or memoir, then stick to the facts.

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  10. I think certain aspects of real life are too boring for fiction; for example, I wouldn't want to read entire chapters about how the characters do laundry or go grocery shopping. But on the other hand, I can't help thinking of creative nonfiction writers like David Sedaris who take aspects of real life that may seem mundane but spin them into something that's interesting and funny. Technically, his work is "nonfiction", but I read somewhere that some of the stuff that happens in his "memoirs" didn't exactly happen as he wrote about them. He took parts of his real life or what he observed from others' lives and turned them into stories, which I think both fiction and nonfiction writers do.

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  11. I definitely think you have it right. I like it when a story is loosely based on an idea and then the author takes it where his/her mind wants. I think your solution of an author note at the end explaining what's real and what's not is a great one, because I do often wonder, "Did that really happen?" when reading historical fiction based on a real person.

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  13. Good points!

    My YA Fiction series can loosley be considered historical fiction because I take my readers to back to different eras. But I change names and take liberty with a few events, however, I do stick to the facts regarding times and places.

    It is a challenge and requires research, but it is fun, too!

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  14. Timely for me!

    My new verse novel is more grounded in a specific event rather than an era, and my approach has been different than it was for May B. What I keep telling myself is the story is first the character's; if I keep my protagonist’s perspective and understanding of her world, enough history will organically seep in.

    What I change I am responsible for (in children's historical fiction I think it's easy for young readers to assume what they read is the truth), but if I explain this and if it benefits the story, it's the right thing to do.

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  15. Like you indicate some readers are going to be turned off by non-fiction and vice versa. I tend to like fiction that portrays real life but reads in an interesting manner and derives some sort of meaning out of the events that occur.


    Lee
    An A to Z Co-Host
    Tossing It Out

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  16. Great post, Jody! I agree that real life can't be splatted onto the page unchanged to make a good fiction.

    Even the most ordinary life has moments of crisis and epiphany. The problem is that they don't happen on the right schedule! :-) So the timeline is probably the single most important aspect that has to be rearranged if we want to make good fiction out of a fact-based story.

    (And thanks, Heidi, for picking up my novel!)

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  17. great post and I have been writing about this point today in my academic thesis that looks at tension between realism and romance in Historical Fiction. I agree with all your points. I loved reading The Preacher's Bride and later finding out why it was set in Bedford, up the road from me!¬

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  18. Thanks for the insight into the process! I had actually wondered why you changed the names in The Preacher's Bride and now I know. :)

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  19. Thanks for the mention! Your insight is valuable in the writing process. Thanks for taking the time to answer those burning writing questions we have!

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  20. I have to agree with what your saying. I steer away from biographies but not a book like yours. I'm all for reading about what life was like back then but I wouldn't want to go through boring, mundane details. Great post!!

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  21. I do believe you have hit the perfect blend of fact and fiction. :)

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  22. Great topic and one that I struggled with in Sixty Acres. The inspiration was the Ruth/Boaz story and wondering "what if it happened like this?" but it wasn't intended as a direct re-telling. If you don't acknowledge the inspiration readers might become frustrated when they read it. If you do acknowledge it some will expect it to be a play by play of the Bible story. I'd imagine writers have the same issues whether they were inspired by Biblical or historical events/characters.

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  23. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that fiction must be plausable.

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  24. I'm writing a historical fantasty (very) loosely based on actual events. My protagonist was at the centre of the real-life action and quite famous in his time, so I'm happy to use his true name. I've also given the names of real people to a couple of other characters. However, my antagonists are all entirely fictional. I wouldn't feel comfortable accusing a person who actually existed -- however long ago -- of villainous acts that he/she never committed.

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  25. "Real life is too boring for fiction."

    LOVE this line! LOL! Great post and very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

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  26. This is a terrific post, Jody. The points you make are so important.

    If I'm reading a novel and the author is using either a real setting or specific timeframe, I'm pulled out of the story if there are noticeable discrepancies -- plants that don't grow in that locale, or don't bloom at that time of year, a distance mentioned that isn't accurate, etc. So I think research is important to make sure any facts we share are accurate. But by changing the characters' names you didn't lock them into a predetermined plot, and that's what fiction is all about.

    And yes, the mundane of everyday life IS boring to read! We need just enough of the routines to set the scene in our readers' minds, but we need forward movement so they constantly have to jog to keep up with the story. :)

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