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Basing Your Fiction on Real People? Can "Real" and "Fiction" live in the same book?

At October's Words Away Salon next Monday, the 16th, Kellie and I are delighted to be hosting Jill Dawson. We'll be talking about writing fiction based on real characters - recent or ancient. Jill is a poet and novelist, and a highly-regarded mentor of writers, and her most recent novel is The Crime Writer. That's about Patricia Highsmith, but she's also written The Great Lover, about Rupert Brooke, and Fred and Edie, based on a famous 1920s murder. 

So we thought she'd be the perfect person to start us off talking about this fascinating but very challenging kind of fiction, and in thinking about our conversation next week, I came across this post, from a few years ago. I've tweaked it a bit, and I hope that it's useful, whether or not you can join us on Monday for tea, wine, cake, beer, and lots of excellent writerly conversation. Just be warned - we do sometimes sell out before the night, so to be sure of a place, book ahead.


I've explored What Counts as Historical Fiction? before, but when you're contemplating a writing about a world that has or had real people in it, there's another question. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography?
A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the record (which is never the same thing as the facts) interrogated for reliability; gaps of time or space acknowledged; inference and speculation labelled as such. But the emergence of creative non-fiction has changed things in life-writing: it uses the techniques that fiction has evolved to evoke in the reader the characters' consciousness and experience: dialogue, imaginative re-creation, non-linear structures, different points of view and psychic distances, etc. Added to the real interest of this liminal territory is the unarguable fact that it's much easier to sell a story through the industry chain from agent to book festival, if it has a "non-fiction hook". So novels about real historical characters are big business: they are sold as fiction, and yet much is made of how faithful they are to "the facts". So confused are we all that in the USA Schindler's Ark - titled over there Schindler's List - was sold as a "non-fiction novel".
But though the gap between a novel based on a real life, and a real life told novelistically, has narrowed, it is still there. Memoirs claim truth because the writer is narrating the authentic, historical truth of his or her own experience, through his or her own consciousness. It doesn't totally negate that claim if events or people are rearranged or conflated, if dialogue is imaginatively re-created, if only bits of the life are told, if gaps are filled with imagination by someone who was there. The story has the unarguable claim to evoking the writer's truth: a lovely example is Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight.
But what if your life-writing is about someone else's life? Your truth-claims can't simply be the unarguable, "This is what I experienced". It seems to me that it's still Life Writing if you, the writer, have direct access to that life. In your memoir of a parent or friend, your evocation is still anchored in your own experience of the person whose story this is: the truth-claims of the narrative don't have to stretch too far. The fact that other writers might disagree - as many do with Edmund Gosse's portrait of his father, for example - doesn't (or shouldn't) negate your right to your truth. 
A different kind of life-writing links your life with your discovery of a long-gone consciousness: "This is what I experienced of that life". The first master of this is Richard Holmes; a favourite example of mine is Janet Malcolm's Reading ChekhovOther than Holmes's way, once you don't have that direct connection and can only experience your character through biographies or other records, you can't say more than "This is what others experienced".
It seems to me that you then have a choice. If you want to make the truth-claim that your narrative is a faithful representation of the life, then the proportion of imagining and changing you can do is fairly small: the narrative logic of cause and effect is pretty much prescribed for you. It's still worth doing, particularly if you exploit the form: Ruth Padel's Darwin: a Life in Poems is definitely life-writing, not fiction, but she has the freedom of the poet to break out of the logical necessities of the already-documented life.
But if you want to imagine and shape things beyond what a biographer would allow themselves - re-create minds, write direct dialogue, evoke emotion and sensation, shape satisfying stories "as if" we were there - then you're moving into the territory of biographical or historical fiction. From Wolf Hall to Rose Tremain's The Darkness of Wallis Simpson, some fo the best writers and writing have centred fiction on real historical figures. And it doesn't have to be Royals: Jill Dawson's Fred and Edie is about Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywater: two real Victorians convicted - controversially in her case - of murder. It's also the case on which F Tennyson Jesse's 1925 novel A Pin to See the Peepshow was fairly obviously based, but Dawson, with the greater distance but also perhaps the need to make clearer the connection to a case now forgotten, didn't veil the story with different names. Then there's Julian Barnes' Arthur and George, about a miscarriage of justice case involving Conan Doyle. The challenge of growing fiction out of well-known figures and events is different from the business of plucking people and events from obscurity.
The thing is, of course, that when you do decide that this will be a novel, suddenly you have much greater freedom. You can call it a novel, make your own rules about what you must stick to and what you can invent, and get going. The reader won't necessarily consciously realise that you've made yourself a rule-book, though many an "author's note" or "historical notes" at the end are implicitly just that. But having a rule-book will mean that there's a consistency about the your novel's relationship to the record which I think readers sense, even if they don't analyse it.
But do be free with your rules. It's the worst of both worlds to claim the fictioneer's freedom and then not take it, whether from the sterilising fear of "getting it wrong", or from a lazy reluctance to go to the bother of imagining when you could just re-write what's in the history books. As Rose Tremain says, facts are inert data until they've lost their real-world tethers and disolved into your imagination along with everything else. An historical novel about a real person must inhabit the character as fully, as imaginatively, and with as much freedom to invent, as if they weren't real. If you can't bring yourself to write as if your real historical character never existed - or if your real desire is to build an historical argument about the innocence of Richard III or the guilt of Edith Cavell - then you need to stop calling it a novel, and admit it's a history book. Or a biography.