Writing Historical Fiction Based On A Family Story

Every family has its stories, stories of military service, lost love, and those who died young. My grandmother’s sister died from tuberculosis when she was only twenty years old. She left behind a ten-month-old baby, and a letter planning her own funeral. Here’s what I learned when turning that snippet of my family’s history into a YA novel, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL.

GIVEAWAY: Shannon is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: madeline40 won.)


Screen shot 2013-02-02 at 12.31.55 AM        Author Photo-4

Guest column by Shannon Hitchcock, author of the 2013 YA novel,
THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL (Namelos), the story of 14-year-old
Jessie Pearl who has big plans for her future before tuberculosis strikes.
Shannon was born in North Carolina on a 100-acre farm. She now lives
in Tampa, Florida with her husband and teenaged son. Shannon’s writing
has been published in Highlights for Children, Cricket, Children’s Writer,
and other magazines. THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL is her debut
novel. Find Shannon on Twitter.



1. Research Comes First. Because I new little about tuberculosis or life on a farm in the 1920’s, I began reading novels set in that time period, North Carolina history books, memoirs written from sanatoriums, and doctors’ accounts of the disease. I consulted experts at the North Carolina Museum of History and the Swannanoa Valley Museum. It took about six months of dedicated research before I was ready to write.

2. Journals and memoirs can be your best friends. A retired schoolteacher from my hometown self-published a book about growing up at the turn of the twentieth century. From Miss Irma’s book, I borrowed folk remedies, a Christmas Eve service, and details about getting a body ready for burial.

(See a list of agents who accept memoir submissions.)

3. Forget what really happened. Since I was not writing a memoir, I was free to change names, make up characters, and alter events. In other words, don’t let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

4. Be prepared to explain what’s real and what’s made up. I’ve received letters and e-mails from people that want to know the facts behind the fiction. Finally I posted an explanation on my blog: http://shannonhitchcockwriter.blogspot.com/2013/01/whats-real-whats-made-up-from-ballad-of.html

(Never open your novel with a dream — here’s why.)

5. Don’t discount small publishers. When my agent was shopping my manuscript, lots of the feedback we received went something like this: “My real concern is that YA historical fiction is a tough sell in the marketplace right now.” While that may be true, THE BALLAD OF JESSIE PEARL found the perfect home at Namelos.

GIVEAWAY: Shannon is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: madeline40 won.)


Don’t let your submission be rejected for
improper formatting. The third edition of
Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
has more than 100 examples of queries,
synopses, proposals, book text, and more.
Buy it online here at a discount.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:



Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.


You might also like:

  • No Related Posts

32 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction Based On A Family Story

  1. vickierj

    This was a very interesting post. I have a lot of questions of my own. Over the past fifteen years, After researching my family tree over the past fifteen years, I have discovered some unbelievable events that took place in 1850’s South Carolina, just prior to the civil war. It’s embarrassing to admit that I’ve been working on my book for the past three years, but there is a great story to share and I feel like I have to get it just right! Your book would probably answer some of the questions rolling around in my mind. Thank you for your time in sharing your post and reading mine. 🙂

  2. grayscot

    Thank you for point number three in particular. I have started three novels based on three separate time periods in my life and get stuck about halfway through every time. I think it is because I let the truth of the events stand in my way of continuing. I have to remember it’s fiction, and you have reminded me that I need to keep writing through the facts to tell a good story.

  3. kristin_e_wolf

    This is incredibly helpful. My Mom wants to write a historical fiction about her family with me, but I really haven’t known how to even start. This is a godsend.

  4. dlock

    I am looking forward to reading your book; I like that use a letter and follow it through a book. History is fascinating to me; I returned to my grandparents’ farm where I was born, and stand in the same spot as a picture of my mother when she was expecting me, 68 years gone by.

  5. janflora

    Thank you for this advice. My mom had a particularly interesting life story, especially as a child, and I have thought of writing about it. My brother even suggested I write it, but I was concerned about treading on her personal feelings and memories. I wonder if you or others have had any problems like that?

    1. ShannonH

      All of the people involved in my story are long dead. I suspect that helps! I wouldn’t have the nerve to write a novel about those still living, but I do worry about the descendants of the people I was writing about. I hope they see my writing as a tribute to our family history even if I changed names, events etc.

  6. madeline40

    This article is so timely for me. I’m working on a novel that evolved from several family members’ life stories. I’ve changed names, done a great amount of research, and changed the story drastically. As I’m now in the revision process, I welcome any and all suggestions. Thank you, Shannon.

  7. noelglizotte

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. The tip about doing research reminds me that … there is a time frame to work within. Spend enough time researching so that we know the details, but don’t make the research the entire project.

    All the best!

  8. Irene

    Thanks Shannon,
    I get stuck on letting go of what really happened and this help me to think about it differently.
    Thanks from another of Joyce’s family.

  9. Lulu89

    I’ve often thought of turning characters from my family tree into stories. I really appreciate this article! I was afraid because I didn’t know enough about the actual stories that I didn’t have enough to write the book.

  10. lakimbra@yahoo.com

    Greetings Shannon, I am sticking my head out of the asylum widow to shout out your book because it is similar to the fictional family story I am writing. My story also takes place in the late 1920s. The Great Depression is the most story rich period in our history. I would love to read your book and use it as a model/benchmark for my story. I have crazy characters that get drunk and wield butcher knives and razors. All of them seem to have some ailment or another either mental or physical. Lord knows we need a sign that we are on the right path. Uh-oh got to break up a fight, one of my characters has the other one in a chokehold.

  11. lakimbra@yahoo.com

    I am writing a fictional family story. It takes place in 1927. I would love to read your book and use it as a model/benchmark for my story.I have crazy characters that all seem to have some ailment either mental physical. Lord knows we a sign that we are on the right path.

  12. tee

    I would LOVE to read this book. It is just what I am looking for. I have started to write historical fiction based on my family. I think this genre can be a great teaching tool for children as well as adults. The setting down of things from another era by the people who lived in that era–or have had input from the folks who did. . . well, there is no comparison to other fictionalized historical works (my opinion). I like your advice to Forget what really happened. I will keep that in mind as I write.
    Best of luck to you.

  13. saraheliza

    I’d love to read your book! Historical fiction based on family narratives (around that same time period even…) is an interest of mine too, and I’d love to see what you did with it. 🙂 Sounds like a really captivating story!

  14. kid1989

    Thanks for your article! I’m in the process of writing a historical fiction novel, and I’ve quickly come to realize that a good portion of my time will be spent researching more about life in the late 1800’s in the rural Midwest. Your suggestions on reading memoirs/journals is definitely one that I’ll put into practice.

  15. happyJQ

    I’ve been doing a lot of research about my grandfather’s time in the Philippines during WWII. He passed away when I was young, so I’m not able to get his perspective on it all. I’m totally fascinated that the ultra gentle grandpa that was my best friend, was forced into being an Army Scout and thrust into such a horrific situation. My mind just will not rest on the topic, so I keep digging for more information.
    Thanks for your help & tips! I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  16. vrundell

    Definitely great tips. Imagine, in 100 years people might be searching our literature/journals for descriptions of arcane things like corded telephones and desktop computers…

  17. Lina Moder

    Thank you for such great tips:) I personally love YA historical fiction – not only do you get to experience a period in history that’s interesting, but you see how it affected individual people, how they felt, what they thought. I think this is the real treasure when it comes to historical fiction, you experience the period, you don’t just learn about it, and that’s how it really stays with you.

    These are wonderful tips to research – especially first-hand accounts. Lots of great details there that bring the period to life in a way you wouldn’t get from academic sources:)

    Lovely post!! Thank you:)


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.