Friday, May 19, 2017

How comfortable are you writing historical fiction about your ancestors?



Me, not so comfortable at first. I didn’t want to “get it wrong.” And I especially didn’t want to insult them in some way because I do believe I’ll see them again in the hereafter. And let’s face it, they didn’t always do things right, or live a shining life of admirable virtues. And of course, I wouldn’t have a story if they did! It’s the bad guys, or flawed people that make stories interesting.

There are a few ways to talk “trash” on your ancestors without feeling a boatload of guilt.


Let’s talk nontraditional structure


I wrote a book last year that would be called mixed genre. My chapters flip-flopped on whether they were my nonfiction experiences regarding the search for the ancestor and how I felt about what I was finding, and then the other chapters were the narrative of the ancestor’s life—her life in story form, where I wrote historical fiction. It’s the only way I could do it with this particular story because I was out to prove a mystery and find the truth, yet I couldn’t find enough “good” story plot lines that were proven. (I wish I could say more about that book, but until the story is published, mum's the word.)

This week I picked up a historical fiction book by Susanna Kearsley, The Winter Sea (2008), that surprisingly followed the same structure as I had written my book, although the present-day chapters—the woman who was writing about her ancestor—were also fiction, written as if they were nonfiction. Let me explain: The storyline of past events was historical fiction about the exiled James Stewart trying to come back to Scotland in 1708 to reclaim his crown, and a young woman (the present-day writer’s ancestor) who witnessed the events. The modern story that ran throughout the book was about the author’s experiences of writing a story about her ancestor who she seemed to be channeling for information. The fictional author finds out her novel is more fact than fiction.

I wish I could say I channeled my ancestor. I certainly tried! And I do know my book is more fact than fiction.

Structurally, both The Winter Sea, and my book are written in chapter form using chapter numbers for the present-day story, and the Roman numeral system for the historical fiction story. There are lead-ins or transitions at the end of each chapter that take you to the beginning of the story of the following chapter, whether its present-day or past.

Don’t be surprised if your readers like the historical fiction part the best. People generally remember story better when it’s written in narrative. The structure described above is only if the story absolutely calls for it.

If you’re writing completely historical fiction and present-day doesn’t play a part in your story, then be sure to follow the same guidelines for classic structure of a traditional novel.


Then again, you could always write yourself into the story as a fictional character searching for her past and unlocking family secrets as Kate Morton did in The Forgotten Garden (2008).

And if you get the facts wrong about your ancestor, you can apologize when you see them in heaven.

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