I love a good story; reading them, writing them, and watching them on screens. For as long as I can remember, my life has revolved around storytelling, and it has never really mattered to me if the story is true or not, as long as it is compelling. Then I sometimes come across stories that are true, and compelling, but nevertheless beg for a retelling. The reasons why vary, but is always intrinsically linked to the how.
Writing historical fiction is in many ways like writing from a different planet. The world you describe isn't there anymore, so no matter how much research you do, you will still not be able to capture it entirely. What it felt like to be a woman in the 19th century can be imagined, but never actually known, just because that world is gone. There are contemporary sources, of course, but they aren't perfect either, and especially not when it comes to true crime. The media was hungry already then and didn't always vet their sources thoroughly, and crimes were often followed by a whole slew of rumors and lies that over time became a part of the lore. All this to say that even if a story is true, there is a lot of blank spaces, and if you are wired somewhat like me, those blank spaces can be like catnip for the brain.
The most significant blank space is often the characters involved. Even if you know the facts of what a person has done in their life, it doesn't necessarily explain what went on in their head; what they felt and what drove them. Sometimes that blank space can compel you to want to come closer to a story, to crawl in under a character's skin to try and understand them from the inside out. That was the case for me with In the Garden of Spite, my first foray into historical fiction based on true crime. The reason why I felt so strongly about it was that the serial killer in the novel, Belle Gunness, was originally from the same part of Norway as I am, and we also had other experiences in common. I just couldn't understand how someone who was somewhat similar to me could do the things she did, and climbing into her head seemed like the best way to try to figure it out. Of course, my answer to the mystery of who she was is only one of many, but it did satisfy my curiosity and filled in the blank space for me.
It was another blank space that inspired me to write my new historical novel, All the Blood We Share. The very first time I read about the Bender family I was struck by the remote setting, the grisly details, the occult backdrop, and the mysterious cast. But more than anything else, I was fascinated by the question of their family dynamics: How does a family of murderers actually function? What do they say to each other over dinner? Not to mention the most intriguing question of all: What happens to the family unit if things start falling apart? The Bender story is rife with blank spaces. No one knows who they really were, where they came from, or where they went. And there were also lots of rumors to consider, but to me, it was the family itself, cooped up together in a shack in the prairie with an orchard full of corpses, that was the blank space I felt I just had to fill in.
When you write about things that actually happened, you can't just color in the blank spaces with whatever you like—or at least you have to decide first how true you want your story to be. Some authors like to write as close to the real events as possible, others want to just let themselves be inspired by the known story. Personally, I'm somewhere in the middle. I do use facts—they are like the firm cornerstones of my story. It is a little like working with an outline that someone else has made. The same goes for characterizations: I scour the sources for physical and behavioral descriptions to build my cast. I also draw on quotes from things they have said, and take a look at their actions to make somewhat informed decisions. Also, because my characters are of a vintage variety, I read up on the history of the time and the area where they lived—you can definitely learn a lot about a character by knowing what hardships they faced. I also apply a little armchair psychology to try to figure them out. Maybe there are things we know now about the human brain that can help explain what happened back then?
I do step away from the facts on occasion. Sometimes it's because real people are messy, and their behavior can clutter up the narrative without adding anything to it. They also tend to repeat themselves and do the same thing many times over, when one time would suffice, narratively speaking. Other times, I need a point of view that I can't find among the historical characters, so then I have to invent someone, like Hanson in All the Blood We Share, who is the Benders' fictional neighbor. Since there are so many blank spaces in the Bender story, I also had to make up my own facts on occasion—like deciding on where the Benders came from. Whenever that happens when I'm working on a story, I turn to the rumors and lies if I can, and use them as a basis for my “truth.”
The most important thing to consider, however, is what story you want to tell. Do you want it to be the victim's story, the criminal's story, or both? Do you want it to be a psychological portrait, an action-packed thriller, or something in between? Once you know, you can look at the facts—and the rumors and the lies—and puzzle them together in the way that serves your narrative best. Then you fill in the blank spaces in accordance with your vision.
There are, after all, many ways to tell a story—even the ones that are true.