Recently, I’ve been privileged to connect with three writers who used aspects of real-life family history to craft their novels. Families provide excellent and often exciting sources of ‘remembered’ information, from wartime heroics and smart inventors to colourful eccentrics who made a mark on their respective communities. Families can also carry hidden histories or secrets, such as bigamists, illegitimate children, even murderers. The big question is, how does the writer harness this into story, and turn it into a novel?
A writer’s two main considerations when using family history as inspiration are structure and believability.
Structure is how the story is told. Whereas real life can be chaotic, fractured and inconclusive, readers expect a novel to depict a journey, a crisis/resolution, and then a satisfactory conclusion. Real life families also have a huge cast of characters, but the writer must decide which to introduce judiciously because a story can become diluted by too many names and faces. The biggest structural issue for the writer is therefore deciding how to craft events so that they reflect the truth, whilst giving a reader what is expected in terms of story. Readers don’t warm so much to chains of events - these might be drawn from real life, but they don’t deliver an evolving story with a proper conclusion. The ‘family history’ novels which find their way into mainstream publication are often said to be ‘based’ on the life of X or Y, simply because the writer has identified that the reader needs a beginning/middle/end, and therefore has deftly woven a few changes between the facts to fulfil this expectation.
Believability is a different issue. This is carefully cultured by staying true to the times in which the historical novel is set. So, although Great Aunt Jamila might’ve genuinely been the first naked lady trapeze artist to have graced the continental stage between the Wars, if she isn’t treated with an appropriate amount of suspicion by the wives of her largely-male audience, and doesn't cause a scandal because of her unmarried lifestyle and lack of clothes, it is likely that the writer hasn’t got behind the ‘spirit’ of the times. The facts are generally the easiest bits to check, but the elusive spirit - the ethos and values of a bygone era - can be more difficult to capture.
For the writer, taking on the mantle of another era has no quick or easy solution. It involves submerging yourself in the past by visiting museums, displays, and buildings; experimenting with recipes from the era in question; understanding how citizens of this time perceived art, appreciated books, designed home-ware and spent their days (which varied depending on wealth); reading newspapers and novels of the era (library microfiche collections and general internet research are useful here); and considering language. Many terms we use today in speech simply weren’t in existence in bygone times, and likewise, some words we still use are so old that they have their roots in the Dark Ages.
As with all kinds of writing, whatever era you wish to explore, reading widely is always a good place to start.