Blurred Lines: Writing Historical Fiction From Fact

Melanie Benjamin—author of six historical novels about real people and events—offers four lessons she's learned about writing fiction from fact, and when to deviate from the truth.
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Melanie Benjamin—author of six historical novels about real people and events—offers four lessons she's learned about writing fiction from fact, and when to deviate from the truth.

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I’m so inspired by the past, by real people and events that haven’t been widely discovered by people today. I love bringing them back to life, and from the response I’ve gotten, I know that readers love learning about them while being entertained by a good story. “I just had to Google this,” is one of the things I hear most frequently. And I love that; I love that my fiction inspires people to further learn the facts.

But there is always a question about how much fact I include in my fiction: Do I have a formula? Can I please explain exactly which words are based on fact and which I made up?

And the answer to this is—I don’t.I can’t.

But I try, because people do seem to want to know this, and so I usually say something like this: I take the facts I glean from my research, add my imagination, and mix it all up in a blender.

Voila—historical fiction! It’s not poetic, but it seems to satisfy a lot of readers.

Still, the truth is, there is a bit more to it than that, and I’ll try to explain it as best I can, with one caveat. I have learned that it’s deadly to try to too closely examine my writing process—maybe since I’m an instinctive writer instead of a trained one; no MFA hangs on my wall. But when I try to hold a magnifying glass up to my process, it seems to die a little, and I can’t explain why.

Here are some basic lessons I’ve learned from writing six historical novels.

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.

1. You have to decide on the subject, and for me, that is the most challenging part of all, even more challenging than writing the book itself.

It has to be a life—or event—that hasn’t been explored very much in fiction or nonfiction before, or at least not recently. And if it has been explored, then I need to come up with a new angle, a fresh approach—provide the reader with a good reason to read my book instead of others. Many of my books have centered around stories that haven’t been explored at all in fiction, or even very much in nonfiction—The Swans Of Fifth Avenue, for example. And The Autobiography Of Mrs. Tom Thumb. But The Aviator’s Wife was about the Lindberghs, who of course are widely known and written about. But when I decided on that subject, one thing had just happened: a thing that no one— no biographer, nobody—had explored in previous books about them. Charles Lindbergh had a secret family in Europe. That compelled me to write that book. I wanted to write about this famous marriage and writing about it in light of this new information seemed fresh to me. Interesting. Worthy of a novel. And that’s another thing I have learned, often the hard way: Sometimes what you think will be an interesting life doesn’t turn out to be able to fuel an entire novel, more like a short story.

2. Once the subject has been decided, I have to then determine which facts to use.

A life consists of hundreds of individual stories; it’s my job to pick the two or three (at most) that will make a good narrative for a novel, a compelling story. A novel cannot explore everything about a life. That’s what a biography or history does. But a novel has to entertain; it has to have a driving narrative. So when I’m reading about a potential subject, that’s what I’m looking for: the one story that leaps out from all the others. With The Aviator’s Wife, that story was the Lindberghs’ marriage. I had to concentrate on that, which meant that parts of their lives that did not shed light on it or that were redundant got left out of the novel. It’s like trimming a tree; I have to prune out some of the facts and events that—while interesting—don’t move that narrative forward.

3. Once those facts have been decided upon, I use them as a road map, markers.

I lay them out in the order that will best serve my narrative. Then I get to work imagining. I imagine myself as the characters, wearing their clothes, looking at the world in the time period in which they lived. I imagine myself as them, doing these things we know that they did. I get inside their heads, I try to understand the whys. In The Girls In The Picture, we know that Mary Pickford and Frances Marion became instant best friends the moment they met in early Hollywood. This is a fact, well-documented. But what was each of them thinking at that moment? How were they sizing up the other one? What was it about this person that convinced the other to let her guard down, open up her heart? I gathered the facts I knew about each of them up to that point of their lives, and I used those facts as the springboard to imagine their thoughts, the conversation that occurred. I knew that Mary had been an actress since the age of seven. I knew that her mother fiercely guarded her. I knew that she was burning with ambition. And here she was, meeting another young woman burning with ambition but the difference was, this woman was not an actress. So, not a threat. Hence, Mary could open up, allow herself to get close, for the first time in her life. At least, that’s how I imagined it was. We can’t know for sure; what they said to each other isn’t known to anyone but themselves, and they’re long gone. But what I get to do is imagine these moments, thoughts, or dialogue that no one else witnessed. That’s the fiction in historical fiction.

4. I do feel some responsibility to history.

With very few exceptions, I’ve never invented an important moment that we know didn’t happen. And when I’ve done that, I’ve had a good reason—usually I’ve condensed several events into one, to make a greater impact—and I explain my reasoning in my author’s note at the end of the book. But in fiction, even real people who did heroic things have to be larger than life; the stakes have to be amped up, the emotions heightened. I’ve read several memoirs and books based on interactions with the real people in my novels. For example, my new book, Mistress Of The Ritz, is based on the American woman who secretly worked for the French Resistance during World War II—while playing hostess to the invading Germans at the iconic Hôtel Ritz in Paris. The novel's heroine, Blanche Auzello, has a real-life nephew who wrote a book about conversations between them. The problem with this, however, is that in real life, people tend to downplay their own stories and adventures. Even Blanche, that gutsy broad, did that, to the point of making jokes about her imprisonment and torture by the Nazis. Well, that would not fly in a novel, would it? And it’s not the truth; it can’t be the truth.

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For whatever reason, Blanche—like Mary Pickford did before her in her memoirs—chose to downplay the terror, loneliness, and risks. The sad times, too. The despair. But these are the very things that make a great novel. So I have to honor these people by honoring the things they didn’t want to talk about.

Again—I have to imagine.

When readers ask me why I chose to write a novel about a life instead of a history, this is what I emphasize—that my strengths are not in researching or in strictly sticking to the facts. My greatest strength as a novelist is my imagination. That’s the tool I most often use, even in historical fiction.

Some writers would feel too hemmed in by the facts to allow their imaginations to concoct a great story. I understand that, I do. But I have been able to find the freedom of creation—the thing every novelist craves, the reason we write—within the structure of history. When I read a biography or history, I don’t close the book, having reached the end, satisfied I now know everything there is to know about this person.

Instead, I close the book eager to know more—the very things a historian has to omit. The emotions, the reasons, the inner turmoil, the secret happiness—the very things that make up a person’s life, famous or not.

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