6 Tips for Writing Fiction Based on True Events

Writing fiction springing from an actual event requires a finesse for your reader's benefit, your friends', your enemies, and yourself.
Author:
Publish date:

You are there. You see it. You’re a writer, so, of course, you want to write about it. Now what? Writing fiction springing from an actual event, maybe one of your own personal experiences, requires a finesse for your reader’s benefit, your friends’, your enemies, and yourself.

(Writing historical fiction from fact.)

There is a way to handle the truth because you’ll begin as if you are wearing kid gloves, but suddenly they will plump into boxing gloves, and before you know it, you are ready to deliver that punch right to your beloved, old auntie’s face.

Learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them. And uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism.

6 Tips for Writing Fiction Based on True Events

6 Tips for Writing Fiction Based on True Events

1. Begin with the truth

Truth is stranger than fiction, so there is certainly much to mine. Each of my contemporary novels sprang off the pages of my own life. Consider writing that first draft close to what happened, what you saw, and what you felt. Capture it.

2. Get permission

Are others involved and do you want to stay close to the facts? If you know this is the case, run and get permission. Do your best to describe that this will be a work of fiction with strands of truth woven through it. Explain to those involved that they will see themselves reflected, but it will be as if they are standing before a curved mirror in an amusement funhouse. You might offer assurance their story could be a great benefit to readers. If they are willing to have you share the essence of what happened to them, go forward and write.

However, if you think the final work will be far from the truth, get to writing first. If you aren’t sure and just the thought of asking permission is hindering your process, begin to write with the intention to either:

  • Ask the involved parties in the future, knowing you may be denied permission to publish your work
  • Be firm in your design to spin the story far away from the facts.

(From the Practical to the Mystic: 7 Tips for Writing Historical Fiction)

3. Take pause

Whether you’ve written a first draft of the facts or are simmering on what truly happened in your mind, take a step back. Once the story is caught in your net, as a writer you have an opportunity to now ask: how could it be made better? What is the theme burning beneath it, and what can I do to feed the flames? Behind my novel Hit was the true story of my daughter’s best friend who had been struck by a vehicle in a crosswalk. But the writer in me begged the question: what if instead of a stranger hitting her it was someone she knew? And then I ramped up the tension in my version of the story and made that person a grad student teacher she was crushing on. (It did take two years and several drafts for this plot point to rise to mind.)

4. Let go

Let the story run, bettering the facts or leaving them completely behind. This is the draft where you open your hand and let go. You are able to silence the voice saying, “That’s not what happened!” And you let your characters run. Let them run through their own blossoming story.

(The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction)

5. Fact can feel fake

One caveat to be aware of is that not all facts are believable. The best, juiciest fact may not make it into your story because again, truth is stranger than fiction. When I wrote Hold Me Tight, I was not able to include that the man who molested me was soon afterwards in a car accident and paralyzed from the waist down… the waist down. My novel would have felt contrived and unbelievable had I included this. Be ready to lay those facts aside with a settled satisfaction that you know what truly happened.

6. Share the work’s completion news

Finally, your draft is done and ready to be submitted. Consider letting the people involved in your story know you have completed your work. Even if you didn’t need to ask for permission to write the book, be kind and give those who inspired your story a chance to process the thought that you have written about the event. On occasion, I will share my text with those involved after the work sells, following copy-editing. It is a chance for them to wrestle through how I’ve changed what happened, and it gives them an opportunity to come to terms with the fact others will be reading the material. It helps your little, old auntie prepare herself for that punch.

(Guide to selecting and working with beta readers.)

Writing from personal life offers rich material. With a few cautions, permissions from yourself and sometimes others, you may write a story to be shared far beyond the few people who lived the moment. That can be rewarding to many readers. So, be brave. Write, and let your story run.

Historical Fiction

Join Donna Russo Morin to learn the definition of historical markers and how and where to unearth them. And uncover the tools to integrate history, research, and the fiction plot arc. Most of all, find out how to honor verisimilitude—the goal of any historical writing—and avoid the dreaded anachronism.

Click to continue.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

What Is a Palindrome in Writing?

In this post, we look at what a palindrome is when it comes to writing, including several examples of palindromes.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Set a Trap

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, it's time to set a trap.