If like me, you discover when researching your family history some wonderful, curious, and frankly zany stories which you long to incorporate into a novel, you are going to have to make some tricky decisions.
After completing 30,000 words of my first novel, The Last Telegram, I showed it to a friend. “It’s great,” she said. “Lots of potential. But where’s the jeopardy?”
That set me back. “Jeopardy?”
“You know, suspense, tragedy. Being afraid that things might go wrong. Things going wrong. People doing stupid things. Or even evil things.”
“But they’re my family,” I said. “They wouldn’t have done evil things. Or even stupid things.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Then you have a problem,” she concluded.
She was so right. Without some kind of jeopardy or suspense, my story was dull. At least one or more of my characters was going to have to do something stupid, controversial, or just plain bad. Others might even have to die. So I was going to have to separate my family from the novel I was writing, or it would just become a book about family history. Not the same thing at all, and almost certainly of zero interest to anyone outside the family.
You need the freedom to make your characters awkward, difficult, even malicious. They must be complex enough to make mistakes or find themselves facing situations in which their choices may bring danger to themselves, or someone else. You must put them in harm’s way. None of this will please your relatives. So, my advice is to insure yourself against any comeback from the family by taking a few simple precautions:
Tip #1: Let people know what you’re up to.
Contact family members (or descendants) in advance and tell them what you are planning to write about. My most recent novel was inspired by the experiences of an uncle who, after spending many years in a prisoner-of-war camp, worked as an intelligence officer for the Control Commission in the British sector of Germany, monitoring refugees trying to move between the Russian, American, and French sectors. He told me very little about his experiences save the fact that they occasionally intercepted escaping Nazis. I immediately sensed that this could make a fascinating novel about a little-known subject, and began reading all I could. Searching for My Daughter (published by Bookouture) is the result. My uncle is dead now, but I have warned his family.
Tip #2: Create contradictory characteristics.
You know how, when you announce that you are writing fiction, friends or family members tend to enquire, a little coyly, whether you’ll be featuring them? And then they take offense if they think you have based a character on them who does something even mildly unpleasant or controversial? This scenario is 10 times worse if you are writing from your own family history. Defray this danger by giving your characters contradictory qualities or features. “Well, Auntie Flo never did go to Australia, and she never got married, so of course that character isn’t based on her.”
Tip #3: Be vague about places.
Give them different names, different routes, different locations. In my case it was tricky; the book was set in a silk mill, and there is only one town in Britain that has silk mills—my home town of Sudbury. Even then I covered myself by calling it Westbury, so that if anyone tried to challenge me—"there isn’t a branch line to Braintree” was one such comment—I could easily retort that I was writing about Westbury, not Sudbury. The flipside was that, even so, I picked up hundreds of readers from the Sudbury community!
Tip #4: Share your inspiration for the novel.
Write a “note on the history” to be included at the end of the book, describing the background and inspiration of your novel and explaining where you have digressed from real historical events and individuals. Or cover your back in other ways: in The Last Telegram, my protagonist fears that the love of her life died because of a mistake she made allowing faulty silk to be used for parachutes. I dedicated the book to my father, “under whose directorship the mill produced many thousands of yards of wartime parachute silk. All of it perfect.”
Tip #5: Try to get the facts as right as you can.
If you feature real, well-known historical characters (like Robert Watson Watt, the man who invented radar, in my book Under a Wartime Sky, or the artist William Hogarth in my books set in Georgian London) then just read all you can about them and get it as right as you can. Be vague about details that you can’t verify. “Faction” is a highly popular genre and there are plenty of excellent examples out there to read and learn from.
It is huge fun, writing historical fiction. Researching your family’s history—or history of any kind—throws up intriguing characters, plot strands, and locations that you might never have thought of on your own. But it also throws up plenty of challenges.
Fascinating families are not enough; you have to bring your reader with you. And that means writing fiction, not real-life stories!