Monday, September 14, 2015

Query: historical fiction with real people

 I recently came across a real-life story about a woman from the 1800’s who lived an incredibly interesting and tragic life (albeit with a decent ending to it). 
I’d love to write a work of fiction using some of these events, without using real names, places, etc. but I’m not sure if that’s appropriate.
She passed away in 1906 and has no direct heirs, but I know that several (very) distant relatives have written blog entries about her and there was at least one non-fiction book written telling her story. 
Another relative has been working on a documentary and although it’s been in the works since 2011, it has yet to come to fruition. 
Although I am planning on this book being a work of fiction, with many events changed or added, anyone familiar with her story would probably recognize it, and I wondered if that could be a problem.

Using real people is very common in historical fiction.

The fact you are asking this makes me wonder if you've done enough reading in your category yet?

You need to know your category, particularly books published within the last two years, VERY well. This is where we all thank god for libraries because this kind of massive reading would be prohibitively expensive without the library.

If you're asking because most of the historical fiction seems to be about recognizable names, and your character is not so well known, you're still ok. You can't libel the dead and sans heirs, estates, or something of value to protect, no one has standing to sue for damages.

If you're asking because someone who has written blog posts, or started a movie might have "dibs" on the story, you're ok. You don't get dibs on a subject or even a person. Copyright is only for the actual work, and copyright doesn't preclude anyone from writing about the same person or subject. It only protects the rights holder from someone taking their words (or pictures) without permission.

The other thing that raises my eyebrows is "without using real names and places." I'm not sure why you wouldn't use real names and places.  If the story happens in Wichita, why would you set it in Buttonweeezerville instead?

Again, this sounds like not enough research. Which might be good news: now you have a legitimate reason to read 100 books and not feel like you're being lazy and not working!


Donnaeve said...


I recently mentioned reading THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd. Little did I know - until I read the Authors Note - the MC and her sister actually lived, as did the slave girl given to her when she was eleven. And reading it AFTER the fact made me love the story even more.

It was very apparent to me that SMK had done an extensive amount of research too - and I say that because, like I also mentioned before, I found the dialogue and thought process of the POC (person of color) authentic. This is a perfect example of a recent work aside from what QOTKU showed here, of a real person and some fact based events written as historic fiction.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Buttonweeezerville LOL !

Donnaeve said...

Clarifications - b/c I was in such a hurry to BE FIRST.

The slave girl was NOT given to Sue Monk Kidd. :)

OFF TOPIC - I still feel weird when I say the thoughts/dialogue of the POC characters is authentic. For two reasons. I'm white - how would I know? It was in the early 1800's - again, how would I know? I'm stating the obvious here, but the more I've thought about it, the more I'm left to wonder - why DO I think that?

To me, this is where EXCELLENT writing comes in. If SMK has made me feel it's authentic, she's done her job as an author. Also, the more I thought about it, the more I realized, wait, a POC wouldn't know those facts any more than I do. Again, for two reasons. They've never been a slave. They weren't alive then either.

Brian Schwarz said...

This terrifies me as a writer. I'm constantly paranoid that I have overlooked or missed something like this, or that someone might think I haven't read enough in my genre.

Because I missed the bus, thank you for the WiR yesterday Janet, and for the mention! Always an honor.

Back to the topic at hand, how does this idea of hist fic relate to the whole "any resemblance to names/places are purely coincidental..." Portion of the standard fiction disclaimer? Or do hist fic novels write it differently? Where's Donna... Someone enlighten me... :)

DLM said...

OP, take time not only to read the genre, but also to learn about the audience. I've been a member at Historical Fiction Online for several years, it includes some authors, but is largely a community of readers who love histfic, across MANY periods and styles.

It is curious to me, the idea of changing names and places. This has been done successfully; even adaptations of Shakespeare. So it's not unheard-of, but I'd think it would be best done by a very deft hand, and for particular reasons (an alternate focus on a well-known story is the most frequent). It sounds like the thinking here is that if we change the names it's okay to write the story; but, as Janet points out, there is no reason to do that - legally, or literarily.

My historicals take place so long ago, either everyone on Earth or nobody at all is a descendant of my characters. 1500 years makes for a nice wide safe zone in the taking-liberties department (but even there, there'll be guitarists at the back of the bar, saying I played it wrong). This is where the old advice comes in: write to the story. But do your research; your work would be close enough in time for much more particular scrutiny than mine, and people WILL scrutinize. Don't sweat those folks, but don't insult the reader, either.

Donnaeve said...

Captain BS! I too loved your pithy comment Ms. Janet pointed out in the WIR.

On that disclaimer thingie - it was in THE INVENTION OF WINGS. I think publishers include it no matter if a real person/persons is/are used for the story, b/c essentially, it IS still considered a work of fiction.

It is kind of funny how it says "any resemblance to persons living or dead (uh, yeah, Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina...dead)businesses, companies, events or locale is purely coincidental."

It's funny b/c Sue Monk Kidd stated she'd used some of the actual events as well - around the MC's life.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Historical fiction is possibly my favorite genre. My cousin, Elizabeth Musser, writes in this wheel house. One of her earlier books, The Swan House, deals with a relationship of a wealthy white girl and a young black man in 1960s Atlanta in the aftermath of the Paris plane crash. I could identify the inspiration for the majority of characters in that book. Our next door neighbor lost her mother in that crash so...

Ken Follet's Pillars of the Earth is another one that I absolutely loved. What a great way to emotionally pull your reader into history! You will never look at Canterbury Cathedral the same again. In a lot of ways, fiction is a better way to understand history and the way people were thinking or how people lived and coped at those times than dusty dry textbooks that are all dates and events coldly recorded.

I have been working on a novel like this about my grandfather - starting with the sinking of the Titanic through the 1970s. Working title is Giant Blume-Dah-Blah. My grandfather was, in my eyes, a mythical character. I have put it aside hoping at some point to get Elizabeth to help me with it. Alas, she lives in France. Her knowledge of history is impeccable and that historical backdrop is a wonderful story builder.

History is such a treasure trove of the stuff fiction needs to work well- conflict and strife, character ideology and arc. Even the epic fantasy, Game of Thrones was pitched as The War of The Roses meets Lord of the Rings. And that, I would say, is why it works. There is a historical precedent for the fascinating power struggles that make that series soar. An HBO series doesn't hurt either.

Anyhow, to the OP, of course you can do this. It's not only ok but also common. And often makes for remarkable fiction.

Theresa said...

Janet is, of course, right about how crucial research is for this kind of novel. And I also think Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings is a great example of doing everything right. I'm always a bit surprised, though, to find out how unknown the Grimke sisters are. I teach about them almost every semester--sometimes twice. They are a staple of U.S. history classes. Maybe this is an indication of how much knowledge students retain!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

oh man, I LOVE Mary Doria Russell, I've loved her since THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD, and DOC was an amazing book. My understanding is she went back to the source documents for it (Doc Holliday's letters to his cousin, that kind of thing).

Plus, I absolutely support the plug for libraries, because of the wealth of information available that not all patrons necessarily know about. For instance, if you're writing historical fiction set in your particular area, check and see if your library has local history materials (such as the entire run of the local paper on microfilm, maps of old neighborhoods, donated family Bibles, etc). If you're lucky, they'll have stuff in your wheelhouse, and said stuff will also be indexed appropriately. Even if they don't have it, they may be able to get microfilm for you from other libraries.

I know my library will get microfilm for genealogical research from Utah, and we've also got outside the system deals set up with the New York State library and also a county community college, so if you can find it on WorldCat, chances are we can get it for you, perhaps even only for the cost of postage. And there's a special library rate, where it's cheaper even than media mail for a library to mail another library stuff.

There also might be local historical societies with similar but different materials that they have access to and can give you access to. Town based ones, county based ones, state based ones.

Susan said...

E.M. Goldsmith: I love everything about your comment. I was at a book sale recently. When I got home, I flipped through my purchases and realized 10 out of the 12 books were historical fiction. Yes, historical fiction produces a romanticized nostalgia that I love, but it also offers an insider view of the time and teaches us that, no matter what the era/period, history is like a ghost lingering around the present, waiting to be recognized.

Your comment about understanding history is so succinct and spot-on. Living history, I like to call it, because fiction--more than non-fiction or even most memoirs--makes it come alive. Please keep writing your book. You have at least one person eager to read it :)

Nothing to add to the original post that others haven't already except that I loved 'The Paris Wife.' Easily one of my top ten favorites now.

Dena Pawling said...

This is entirely off topic [unless you count that this area is historical because it is the heart of CA gold country], but I'm mentioning it because last week someone commented they won a prize at the Calaveras County Jumping Frog contest. This contest is held in Angels Camp CA every year. My father-in-law, when he was alive, lived in Calaveras County about 10 miles north of Angels Camp, on a 360 acre ranch where he raised burros. He's been gone now for 18 years, but I still have wonderful memories of visiting him on his ranch.

Angels Camp is on the “advisory evacuation” map for the Butte fire, currently at 65,000 acres and only 25% contained. Right now, Angels Camp is about 5 miles from the fire zone.

My father-in-law's ranch was located right in the middle of the burn area. It's entirely gone.

Be careful out there.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Susan "history is like a ghost lingering in the present" - what a beautiful way of putting it.

I like that a lot. I did want to reiterate Janet's advice to the OP- read, just read. Research carefully of course, but read. That is always the most invaluable advice to any writer. Read. And know the genre you want to write. Beyond the benefit to your writing, reading is such a great way to add breadth to life. It takes you beyond the bounds of your own skin.

Mister Furkles said... have a legitimate reason to read 100 books and not feel like you're being lazy and not working!

So pleased to read this because that is exactly what I've been doing rather than finishing the first draft. Not that the county library has any books on early Christian Byzantium, but at least I don't feel lazy for reading Lee Child, Lincoln Child, and many more.

Of course, the local university library may be chock-full of Byzantium books but we non-students may not check them out. That means driving there, searching for half an hour to find parking, hoofing a mile to the library, and reading for an hour or so.

So much more pleasant to read a thriller or mystery from the county library. And now, without guilt. Yea!

Kelsey Hutton said...

Hi Janet,
You said "You can't liable the dead." I think you meant libel; or, be liable to.

Craig said...

Every story I have ever seen has some parts of real history in it. Using some pieces of history gives your reader something to feel familiar with.

Histfic just takes that to a higher level. It like most other forms of fiction have all been done before. You have to find a niche and exploit it to make it your own. Gary Corby is an excellent example of this.

It does help to know the other stories centered an an era or event but don't hesitate to write it if you can sink your teeth into it. Just be aware so your work stays different enough that critics can't say you plagiarized someone else.

Science fiction even does better with historic ties. David Drake is a fan of the Pelopanisian Wars and isn't shy about stating that the source for his battle scenes.

Pharosian said...

I listened to the audiobook version of The Invention of Wings, and it was wonderful. The narrators (one for Sarah, one for Hetty/Handful) did an amazing job. Skilled narrators make such a difference!

I also loved The Sparrow and Children of God.

Laura Mary said...

Personally I would have thought it more complicated *not* to use real names and places if the overall story will be recognisable.
Hisfic isn't really my genre so I struggle for an example, but the BBC TV series Tudors was a wildly fictionalised story of the reign of Henry the VIII - If you made a series depicting the fictional life of King of Carkoon, Felix the VIII, and his long line of Buttonweazer wives who one by one meet a sticky end... Isn't that more problematic? I can see pitching becoming a little repetitive...

'So it's the story of Henry VIII?'
'No, it's not really about him, just based on events from his life'
'So there's a different protagonist?'
'How is he different?'
'Well, his name is Felix...'

Another factor is that by changing the names etc, readers might think you were trying to hide the fact that your story is based on a real life story. You wouldn't have a legal battle on your hands, but readers en masse are a dangerous beast - Just read the Amazon reviews of the Hunger Games from the die hard Battle Royale fans!!!

Karen McCoy said...

What DonnaEve said. The writing.

And yes, reading. All the reading. The main reason I took my new library job is that it forces me to read a lot more in my category.

If your local library doesn't have a book you want, you can ask about how to borrow it through inter-library loan.

is also available to all, and will show you where all the (free) books live.

Brian Schwarz said...

THANK YOU Donna! :)

You responded so quick, I'd have thought you were reading my mind!

I love what DLM has to say about knowing your audience! This is an often overlooked part of the writing equation and one that should be considered more carefully. I'd think proponents of hist-fic are looking for a more authentic experience, so the more real details included, the better. I could be wrong, but I refer to Donna and Diane for their much appreciated expertise in these matters. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow do I love this topic. As everyone knows (because I won't shut up about it) I'm working on a civil war novel about a southern woman who's a Confederate spy and her fiance who's an aide to Col. JEB Stuart while I query my fantasy.

Holy tapdancing terrapins is that fun and you can bet your sweet Aunt Fanny I am using real names, dates, events, dialogue, and places. I'm not going to use historical people for completely fictional events that have no basis in fact. I hate it when people do that. I wouldn't make Abraham Lincoln an innkeeper before the war, for instance. I wouldn't use a real inn and innkeeper and have the innkeeper do something outlandish I have no idea they would have done in real life. History is too filled with interesting people and events to sully someone like that. It's too easy to create a fictional inn and innkeeper.

Back in a former life when I was researching a famous cattle baron and his wife, I went to the world renowned ranch and visited with the historian. The story of the rancher and his wife rivals Gone With The Wind. It's flat remarkable. The historian was so impressed with the research I'd already done he opened up all the private archives to me. Anything I wanted was mine.

I think most people will find if they want to write historical and exhibit a true interest, historical societies, museums, collections, will be very helpful in your research.

Even if it's a little known character, there's a historical society somewhere that has information about the era, the area, the profession, etc.

DLM said...

Why thank you, Brian! :)

Y'all may be inspiring me to semi-useful blather; Tom Williams ("Cawnpore" and "The White Rajah" has invited me to guest on his blog, and I have been thinking about what to noodle on about. This may make a good starting point!

Almost as important as research and knowing the audience, I hope, is networking like this. Once I get the WIP ready for querying, I'll have a community of genre readers who know me at HFO, some folks here, some blog readers, some Twitter pals. It's not the world's most astonishing platform, but I'm out there and there are more than a few folks who say they can't wait. Something to take advantage of.

But for today's point, I do HIGHLY recommend surfing online for historical fiction communities, blogs, Goodreads and so on for DISCUSSION. As Penny once said on Big Bang Theory, when asked how she knew about pop culture, "I go outside my house and talk to people."

Talk to people, listen to people, read about people, and follow the story. Don't try to lead it by putting it into (or taking it out of) a box.

It really sounds like there's a compelling story to be told. This is what turns most historians into historians, and most histfic readers and writers into histfic readers and writers. It's what turns any writer into a writer.

Hooray for compelling stories!

Elissa M said...

I echo Mister Furkles and say thanks for the permission to read.

Sadly, our local library has almost no budget, and the category I need to read isn't one to which they allocate funds. In fact, nearly all of their books are donated. The good thing about that is I'm forced to expose myself to categories I might not otherwise have tried.

The next closest library is 30 miles away. I'm going to have to see if either my local library or the other one has inter-library loan if I'm going to read 100 recent books in my category.

DLM said...

Julie, WITH YOU on Abe the Innkeeper (though now I want to start a jug band with that for our name ...). I have a passionate loathing for cameos in histfic. Cannot bear it when Leonardo da Vinci (and always *called* that, which is a whole 'nother can of irritants) crops up in a novel or movie - or Einstein - or Cleo-can-we-please-let-the-Macedonian-rest-PATRA for crying out bleeding loud.

Yet at HFO, I learned that an awful lot of readers JUST. LOVE. THAT.

It's not inducing me to implement the practice, but it's a fascinating point - what I find a tortured jamming of pointless celebrity worship into a historical context (which probably doesn't need the "help"), others love to see. For some reason.

In some way or other, that probably affects the way I approach my audience. It may not result in my spoonfeeding them famous Romans or time-warping neato popes into my work, but understanding that my issues are only my own is part of a wider understanding every author probably needs.

Anonymous said...

Gah, how could I forget to mention the libraries. My library in Odessa, Tx had a great historical section complete with a microfiche of newspapers and census records. Old census records are great for ferreting out information.

The ladies there grew so familiar with me they were as excited about my quest on this ranch as I was and would look for books and information about it.

I'm not using too many library books now because I'm highlighting the heck out of them for later reference. Libraries frown on that.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

To add to Jennifer's research list, if you are located in the USA, dont forget the County Courthouse. Not only are there meeting notes, decisions, directives from the inception of the County you are in, but also Tax and Property records etc. Its amazing what personal information you can find on an individual or a piece of land by perusing these records - for free.

Anonymous said...


I've always wanted to write a story about a couple of lesser known Egyptian queens I find fascinating. I won't because I don't have the time to research them properly. I'm still interested in Cleopatra, though. I'd like the story of the servant who died with her.

I'd like to see Joan of Arc's story from the viewpoint of one of the men who rode with her.

I don't mind authors putting famous people in books. I'll have a vast array of them in The Rain Crow, the Civil War book, simply because my characters travel in these circles. It would be unrealistic to think an aide to Stuart doesn't meet Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, etc or know most of the Union generals since most of the CW generals all went to West Point together and all served in Texas together.

What I object to is having famous people doing things they never did. Lincoln was a store keeper before he became a lawyer and a politician, but he was not an innkeeper before the war. A modicum of research would tell you that.

If you're going to use real people, especially famous people, don't have them doing stupid stuff they never did.

That's one reason I love Patrick O'Brien's books so much. He did an excellent job of research.

BJ Muntain said...

It sounds like OP likes the story, but wants to build their own world around it. In other words, OP doesn't want to write this person's story; they just want to pick some of the things the person has lived through and use those.

If the story isn't about this woman, but instead is about someone living through some of the same events as this woman, then there's nothing anyone can say. It sounds like this story is more of 'inspired by this woman's story' rather than 'based on this woman's life'. Unless the events have to be very specific to the time, you could set it in outer space, or your own hometown, or a fantasy realm.

Donna: I think by authentic you mean it sounds real. It sounds like the voice realistically and emotionally fits that particular person.

DLM said...

Julie, what you're writing isn't celebrity cameos, though. It could be argued I'm writing about famous folks, and (Saint) Remigius of Rheims is a minor character in my own work. But, like you, I literally could not have told the story without him. I get huffy when Resident Famous Person of whatever given age is dragged in where they don't *have* to be, for a scene or two which isn't necessarily organic nor crucial to the novel. Often, this is a modified deus ex machina (in Leonardo's case, the machinas get awfully fanciful, too), and it slams me straight out of a story.

Katherine, by Anya Seton, is about the mistress of John of Gaunt, and Chaucer crops up throughout the novel. But - Chaucer was her brother-in-law. He belonged there.

Ever After is a Drew Barrymore movie in which Leonardo is all but cast as the fairy godmother *and* even provides an assist to establishing her 20th-century feminist cred. Even Thomas More is conscripted to this service, and their forced employment here is all but insufferable.

Knowing your voice and the pride you take in your work: I have to believe you aren't pulling any of this sort of business! And that's what that sort of thing is; it's business, it's opportunism. It's not really storytelling, it's puzzle-working ("how can I fit THIS piece in?").

For me, if an author would have a harder time leaving a character out than not, their presence makes sense. But if it's necessary to engage in tortured acrobatics to get cameos or subplots to support the scaffolding of your plot, there's something wrong with the *story*. I've seen what I thought might be this sort of cameo worked in, developed, and written well enough there is a reward in the end. It can pay off. But 99% of the time, this isn't the case; and 99% of the time it doesn't help/isn't necessary. So I get all "WHY DO THIS!?" and snarky and it tears down the world-building that makes any story worth reading.

Janet, my apologies - I won't derail anymore!

Janet Reid said...

Julie: Lady Bronc Riders.

That is all.

Ashley said...

Wait a minute. I don't think that she wants to write historical fiction, does she? Sounds like she just wants to write a novel based on some facts about a person's life, which is why she'd change names. She wants to take the basis of this woman's life and turn it into her own story.

Anonymous said...

But is there such as thing as too much research? Can't research be a form of procrastination? How much do you need to know before you stop reading and start writing?

Anonymous said...


*laughing* Lady bronc riders, Cowgirls Wanted, is started.

Diane, I completely agree.


Ly Kesse said...

Um, interestingly, I came across a comment by an author? a wanna be? that the research for historical fiction ought to be done after the first draft is written. (And yes, my wip is historical.)

At any rate, the thinking is that done before hand, the research contributes to major info-dumps. You know, about the things that are oh so fascinating when researched, but impinge on the story only tangentially.

That timing, or so the argument goes, keeps that kind of stuff under control.

And having experienced my subconscious regurgitate anything and everything I am currently reading during the creative process, I have taken those words to heart.

Just my two cents.

Susan said...

dell: Absolutely, if my current WIP, which I affectionately refer to as The Damn Novel, is any indication. It's set against the backdrop of WWII in a fictional French town--I wanted to explore the war from the POV of a group of people not directly affected by it. When I started out, I thought I wanted to have at least a basic understanding of the war. Then I tumbled down the rabbit hole, reading everything from diaries to letters to research papers to get an understanding of the reactions of those living everyday life and how they coped, even on the periphery. The research ground my writing to a halt, and I convinced myself I could never do the book I wanted to write justice.

Eight years later, and I'm finally finishing the first draft. All that research is coming into play in the details, and I'm grateful for it, but I wish I hadn't let myself get so bogged down in the facts that it stifled the creativity. Now, I'm letting the research come later in the revisions, where I can research types of chocolate for the chocolatier.

This damn novel, I swear.

BJ Muntain said...

Ly: I can understand that reasoning. For me, a first draft is like a really detailed outline. Once it's written, I know what research needs to be done to fill it out and make it correct.

However, I like to know a fair amount about the topic to begin with, so I don't start something so silly that it can't be fixed, no matter how much research goes into it.

Anonymous said...


I think that research should be done after the first draft is a cop out.

Let's take the lady bronc riders for a prime example. We know there were a bunch of lady bronc riders in the 30's and 40's ending in 1941. They rode bucking horses, bulls, did trick riding, and relay racing.

That would make a great novel. Unfortunately, you're not going to get any of it right without a tremendous amount of in depth research and interviews. So, if you write the story and then start researching you're going to find dates are all wrong, places are all wrong, people are all wrong, equipment is wrong, clothing is wrong, events are wrong. What did you accomplish by writing a first draft before you researched it?

Yes, a person can turn something into an info dump, but that's where finesse comes in. If you read Patrick Rothfuss it's not hard to imagine he's a chemical engineer because of the wonderful magic system he's created. The details are luscious. In a less skilled hand they could well turn into an info dump.

Intriguing details and info dumps are the like difference between a great fajita dinner and a bottle of Butt Burner hot sauce.

Ly Kesse said...


Agree with you, especially about the detailed outline. Pegs me exactly. I find out what happens by writing, and then it needs to be shaped.

I quoted that partially tongue in cheek, but only partially. It is true that what I reads finds it's way into my writing.

But generally, I don't write about things I don't know a fair amount in the first place. The rest of the research are on the details of daily life, which are really hard to come by if they are outside living memory.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yee haw for Julie, COWGIRLS WANTED. I love it. You go (cow) girl.

OP, you said you "recently discovered" your character. No matter what any of us say, write your damn story because you want to, not because someone says it's legal to do so. And, because as someone I greatly admire recently said to me, "...because it brings you joy".

Okay, I have a problem which does relate somewhat to OP's problem. I'm not totally going rogue and off topic's not my place to blubber-on here so if I may (I'm treading lightly, forgive me if I overstep) my latest blog post outlines what I am up against, real or imagined.
If any of you legal types want to chime in, come on over.

This IS NOT a shameless call for blog readers. If some consider it that, well, I already clean the latrines on Carkoon so there ya go.

Maybe I'll just get deleted. Golly gee, that would make me cry.

Adele said...

Liable - Lible - Libel.

The last one is the one you want. Still not fixed.

Anonymous said...

Grrrr. A friend sent me an Amazon gift card for my birthday so I am like a kid in a candy store. I decided to buy some books on the old cowgirls. One avows, "that people moved West because the East became grimy and crowded."

That kind of makes that author lose all credibility with me.

Upon further reading, she has one of the cowgirls tame a wild bronco no one has ever been able to ride by speaking kind words to it and stroking its neck. Then they patted away in the blue Montana dust.

*bangs head on desk*

And this is non fiction.

racherin said...

Great question - and so much good advice about historical fiction.

My current WIP is fantasy, and I'm diligently reading about two recently published fantasy books a week - this is starting to take a bit of a toll on my sleep, but mostly I just skip chores. If I start to mix in historical kids are going to have to stay home from school to bake the bread.

I have person I really, really, want to write about, however, and I can't get my head around the basic story arc. I also wonder if I'll be able to fictionalize it. Do a lot of writers bend facts on purpose? I just read an acknowledgement at the back of Very Big Bestseller where the author cheerfully said he ignored all kinds of things about cancer doctors told him, when the story required it. I could leave it out, but I don't think I could willfully change Real Facts. Maybe this is my attraction to fantasy? I get to write the rules.

Anyway, I haven't gotten my hands on the 600 page scholarly account of her life yet. One novel at a time.

Janet Reid said...

Thanks Adele.
I may just go and hide under the duvet now.
I'm not sure it's ever taken me three tries to get something right.


Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

@DLM Regimus and Clovis and Clotilde taught me things I never knew about the country I'm living in.

Susan, it sounds like all those details seeping in is what should embellish your story.

I'm dying to read City on Fire because my WIP is a contemporary Parisian version. And then one of the stories I want to write is the guys who graffiti bombed a certain metro station back in the 90's.

One of my favorite hisfic (fantastical hisfic, I guess) writers is Christopher Moore. SACRE BLEUE featuring van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and Gaugin and the parisian catacombs is a great book and was recently published in French.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Janet please don't hide. We need you. The English language is a land mine of grammatical and spelling traps. And proof reading your own stuff is ... At least for me a bit unreliable. I have a full request due to an agent and I am torturing myself over the proofing of the manuscript and now worried that kale awaits me. Spell check doesn't catch there instead of their or hear instead of here. Nor did the 3 people I trusted with editing. And either did I the first 190 x I proofed this damn thing. Sorry, way off topic. But don't worry, liable, libel - potato potahtoo - it matters not. We understood. Didn't we, woodland creatures?

BJ Muntain said...

I suppose I should mention: I don't write historical fiction. The research I do, for the most part, is more about science, and sometimes some law. There's one story I've written that will be completely rewritten once I research the geography of a certain area (I wrote it long before the World Wide Web existed, so no such thing as Google maps then). I don't have to fit my stories around historical events or dates, because in my writing, history is past. As is much of the present.

I am writing a non-fiction book about a historical trial. THAT, I'm researching as thoroughly as possible, although I'm pretty sure that 90% of the information that exists on this trial is all primary resources. Of which I already have most, and have read. It wasn't a well-known trial.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Once more a lot of great stuff today. Julie, I adore Patrick Rothfuss and cowgirls. I wanted to be a cowgirl. My protagonist in current book is a cowgirl in a post apocalyptic fantasy.

Research can be tiresome as much of it ends up on proverbial cutting room floor. But it is essential. Even if your book is not historical. Even if it happens to be sci-fi or fantasy. It just may be a different kind of research. It's worth the effort because it sure shows in your work.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

And BJ, I love that kind of non-fiction. A trial has conflict, character, and story built in. The HBO series, The Jinx, was chilling and more so because it was true. Different than a book but documentary is film's version of non-fiction, yes?

Ly Kesse said...

Before someone thinks I'm truly glib about research, I have been reading about my topic literally for decades. But history is history, and historians are interested in personalities and the effects of policy and military forays. The details of everyday life, especially for an unknown ethnic group, are sometimes hard to find.

I never knowingly bent facts, but I have punted when I could not nail down a detail. To my satisfaction, I have later been proven correct.

But at some point, when writing historical fiction, it's a process of letting go of the walker and taking baby steps all by one's lonesome. Scary, but I did find that stories are about people and in some respects, human nature doesn't change. For instance, siblings squabble and so on. It's why the Bible (if one is so inclined) can still be a relevant document.

So after all this, it's not like I've been published. So maybe I should shut up and let the grown ups talk. *crawls under a bushel*

BJ Muntain said...

EM: I haven't seen the Jinx, I'm afraid, but it does sound interesting. And yes, a documentary is very much film's version of non-fiction.

I was feeling kind of blocked on my research, having completed transcribing my primary resources and not having received other information I need yet. Thanks to this discussion, I suddenly had an insight into some further researching I could do (at least until I receive the other information), and I've been doing that most of the afternoon. Thanks, folks!

Ly, you're not the only one here who hasn't been published. I haven't. I would hazard a guess that most of the folks here haven't yet been published. Though it sure sounds like that number is diminishing. I wonder if it's a coincidence... Nope. It's gotta be the information we find here.

Susan said...

Angie: I can only hope! I'm writing it again, which is what feels the most important. The foundation is there, at least, so hopefully I can put the rest aside for the sake of finishing and research the minor details during edits. I'm starting to think there's something to using initial research as building blocks, then stepping aside for the sake of letting your own creativity flourish.

Glad you brought up Christopher Moore--he's fantastic and hilarious. "Lamb" is another good example where he knows the story/history inside and out and perfectly spins it to match his own vision. Then again he has a much better imagination than I do to start!

Anonymous said...


I'd venture a guess most of us aren't published and I'm glad you de-lurked. It's always good to have more interesting voices.


I love Rothfuss, too. I ordered The Slow Regard of Silent Things Today.

Megan V said...

2Ns—I can't give legal advice, but I would like to give you a resource. It's old blog and it's not really maintained anymore(a shame) but I still would like to recommend it to you and to all of the readers here. If you are concerned about things like Trademark and Libel and all that good stuff that kinda sorta relates to the original post.

This is the blog:

A post that might interest you all:

On another note, I cringed at the Ever After hate. I adore that movie. It's a guilty pleasure of mine. I know, I know...the deus ex machina is unneccessary. However, there's something about the ludicrous inclusion of a character (or characters) and some ideas that adds a touch of whimsy to the story and, in turn, makes it more enjoyable.

Colin Smith said...

Just popping in briefly. Been busy today (see yesterday's comment). I see Megan dangled a few unlinked links that I need to linky up:

That's probably the most useful thing I can contribute to the discussion. :)

Megan V said...

Thanks for linking Colin!

James Ticknor said...

This was somewhat similar to the question I submitted to you, Janet. I'm still kicking myself for using that awful phrase "fiction novel".

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Megan V, thanks, VERY HELPFUL. And Colin thanks for the link.

Kae Ridwyn said...

Hi everyone; sorry for the late comment, but I'm one of those 'should I shouldn't I post this really rather silly question' woodland creatures...
If you need realistic dialogue from a character in the 1600's, and you find examples of speech that fits with what you're after, well, when is plagiarism, plagiarism? Turns of phrase that were (or could have been) commonplace back then, which aren't any more - can these be copied more or less verbatim in a 2015 WIP without it being considered 'plagiarism'?

DLM said...

Megan V, that's actually the thing that bugged me with Ever After - it IS a charming movie, and Drew is fresh and winning in it. I do have issues with 20th century feminist heroines in histfic, but would have lived with that for the movie itself. BUT. Why jam Leonardo and Thomas More in there? Mostly Leonardo. (Actually, her reading Utopia would have been great, by itself.)

So my apologies there; the celebrity cameo is my issue, but the movie is actually nice escapism as I recall (I haven't seen it in at least a dozen years).

Angie, I am overwhelmed with tickles you've enjoyed AX. Everyone, Angie is my first Real Reader. Well, only. :) SO FAR.

Research after drafting; I suppose that must work for someone, but my feeling is the best way to dodge the "your research is showing!" problem is to practice, learn, and EDIT THE BEJEEPERS out of a MS.

Susan, Barbara Kingsolver was at the James River Writers conference last year, and she told us how she had a filing cabinet for years labeled "The Damn Africa Book." Your epithet for the WIP is in fine company! (I was calling mine Wippy for a bit there, but Gossamer the Editor Cat laid down the law, and now it's just the WIP again.)

DLM said...

Kae, I meant to respond - if you are using figures of speech, that's not plagiarism, that's flavor and helps transport your readers. There is, however, a caution with this: amongst historical readers, there's a word, "Gadzookery" - this refers to an overabundance of antique(-sounding) speech patterns which go *too* far and end up having the opposite effect. Sometimes, too, phrasing is used incorrectly; so have a care and read widely!

But the short answer is - using phrases and expressions is safe ground. If you use and entire speech, or lift Pepys' entries wholesale, you'll get in trouble with knowledgeable readers.

Panda in Chief said...

I haven't had time to read all the comments yet. I'll save that pleasure for my afternoon treat.
I wanted to chime in with my favorite novel that makes use of real people. That's Barbara Kingsolver's book The Lacuna. Being a visual artist, I've read biographies and art history books about many artists, but her portrayal of Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera made them come alive like no other book I had read on them before this. I've read enough about these two artists to believe she did tons of research and did it well.

And that's the thing, if you are going to use real people as characters, even if they are not the MC. Do the research so that people can really beiieve in your portrayal of them.