My debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on the life of a real woman convicted of aiding a murder in London in 1837. I made a lot of wrong turns when writing the novel, so I hope that what follows will help provide some shortcuts for those considering writing fiction based on fact. Good luck!
1) Thinking using a ‘pre-made’ story will make the writing process easier
Writing fiction based on fact is by no means easier than creating a story entirely from scratch. In some ways, it’s more difficult. It’s common to feel hamstrung by the truth and unable to create; or to believe you have to do so much research, that you never actually finish the bloody book. And there are also legal considerations. If you’re writing about real people who are still alive and litigating, then you need to be very careful that you don’t open yourself up to a libel action. Even you change the people’s names, they can still bring an action if they say that others would identify them from your novel. If you’re using original materials still in copyright, you need to make sure you get the relevant permissions.
Writing fiction based on true stories is great, and there’s definitely a market for it, but don’t fool yourself that it’s the easy option. MORE: How True Can A True Story Be?
2) Believing you must stick rigidly to the facts
You don’t have to stick to the known facts if you don’t want to (subject to the ‘avoiding being sued’ bit above if you’re writing about alive, identifiable people). You’re not a historian or a biographer – you’re a novelist. You get to have fun. It’s easy to fixate on what experts on your subject might think of your interpretation, and of course you should do enough research to make sure you’re not making any serious errors, but as the novelist Emma Darwin recently said to me: ‘Your novel, your rules.’ See below.
3) Thinking you must do as your literary hero does
Just because Robert Harris did it a certain way, doesn’t mean you have to. Set realistic targets for yourself at the outset of the project as to how you’re going to research and interpret the facts.
I began The Unseeing with the idea that I’d abide by the premise Margaret Atwood set herself for Alias Grace, namely that, ‘When there was a solid fact, I could not alter it.’ Only by draft 8 had I worked out I needed to let go of some of the precious facts and concentrate instead of creating a novel that was true to itself and worked within the genre. MORE: Top 5 Research Mistakes Writers Make
4) Believing you need to research everything before you start writing
Research is the easiest way to avoid writing a novel. I’d suggest doing some initial broad research and then working out the arc of your novel, or even a detailed plot structure. Next work out what further research you need to do to write the first draft. While you’re writing the first draft, determine the specific questions to which you need to find answers. Otherwise you could (and probably will) fall into the terrible black hole of research and will never be seen again.
5) Thinking the true history is THE story
The historical reality or the truth of the court case is not the plot of your novel. What matters are your main characters’ arcs: the journey they take over the course of the novel. People will be reading you novel for the story – for the escapism – not for the facts. If they want facts, they can head for the non-fiction section. Think of yourself as a literary witch mixing together your research and imaginings to provide the reader with a different kind of truth – what it’s like to fear, to love, to escape, to survive. Do whatever you want, just do it well. MORE: 5 Ways Of Bringing Real Life Into Storytelling
BIO: Anna Mazzola writes historical crime fiction and strange short stories. Her debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on the life of Sarah Gale who in 1837 was charged with aiding and abetting the murder of another woman. The Unseeing comes out in paperback in the UK on 26 January 2017, and is published in the US on 7 February. Follow her as @Anna_Mazz and CHECK OUT HER WEBSITE.