As writers, we always hear that familiar old adage: Write what you know. Most often, we take this to mean that we should write about our own lives.
Many well-known books have been based on the life of the author. But does this make it a novel, or an autobiography?
Similarly, many authors claim that they got the idea for their book from the media, historical works, or just from overhearing conversations.
There’s plenty of inspiration flying around every day. But if we’re writing about entirely true events, does that still make it a novel?
By definition, a novel is a work of fiction. Merriam-Webster defines it as an ‘invented prose narrative’, if you want to sound fancy. So solely based on definition, the events in a novel must be made up.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t use real events, locations and characters as a basis or inspiration for your story. In fact, this happens frequently!
What’s important is that these features of your novel cannot resemble the real-life stuff too closely, because it can land you in some legal hot water.
If you do want to write a book based entirely on true events, it would fall under the umbrella of memoirs and biographies, and is often referred to as creative non-fiction.
Works of creative non-fiction require a lot more research and are based on fact more than anything else.
The most important thing is to decide if you actually want to write a fictional novel, or a work of creative non-fiction. This will affect the way you approach the writing process, and the way your book will be marketed.
For more help deciding between the two genres, read on.
Fiction vs. creative non-fiction
When writing creative non-fiction, there is an assumption that the author is only relaying events that happened, without speculation or invention.
The ‘creative’ part refers primarily to the writing style, and the tone and emotion the author conveys.
These works are written using extensive research and interviewing – even if the book is about the author’s own life!
When we’re writing about our own memories, it’s difficult to write without bias, and near impossible to retain a complete memory of what exactly happened. (When I tell stories from my own childhood, my brothers always started it.)
A popular example of creative non-fiction is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, investigating the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas.
Capote spent six years writing the book, interviewing and becoming friends with the citizens of the town. The events and people in the book all exist – although there has been some speculation over whether all the events actually happened.
Capote writes with a creative quality, using emotive language to create three-dimensional characters with their own hopes and dreams, but these are entirely based on real people.
If the sound of years of research and interviewing for a creative pursuit doesn’t appeal to you, it might be best to leave the idea of creative non-fiction behind.
Real-life novels based on real-life events
A lot of popular novels were initially inspired by true stories. Let’s take a look at some examples of authors who used real events as a basis for their fictional novels.
Agatha Christie wrote Murder On The Orient Express after reading the headlines about the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s son. The real-life murder was unsolved when her book was published, but Christie used it as a springboard into her own story of murder and revenge.
Room by Emma Donoghue was written after she read about two separate criminal cases where children were held captive for years in locked rooms. It provided the fictional world where Jack and Ma live, and as well as being a wildly successful novel, was turned into a feature film.
The Revenant, most popularly known as the film that finally won Leo DiCaprio his Oscar, is also a novel by Michael Punke. He wrote it after being inspired by the life of explorer Hugh Glass.
Truth is stranger than fiction
In a sense, every story is built on real life in some way. Writers tend to draw from their lived experience, sometimes without even realising.
Even a fantasy novel set on a far-away planet might have characters who are based on figures from the author’s childhood, or it may reflect the social world we are currently living in.
Evident from the novels mentioned above, it’s possible to actively seek out interesting, true stories for writing fodder.
Newspaper clippings and history books are a great start. Sometimes even a good story that you hear from a friend can be the starting point for a novel.
If you settle on writing a novel that’s based on true events, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when you begin.
Most importantly, remember that while real events can be woven into a novel, there must be enough differences to keep you protected from legalities, and from offending the people involved.
Considering the novel’s subject and characters
One important thing to consider when writing a novel based on real events is the subject of the story. It’s always possible that the people being written about will recognise themselves in the narrative.
If you’ve written a flattering, generous account of their character, great! If their character is the villain of a story that loosely mirrors the events of their real life, not so much.
In the best-case scenario here, there is enough dissimilarity between the real person and their character to adequately offend. In the worst, it opens your novel to claims of defamation if the person feels they have been damagingly misrepresented.
This is where changing enough about the events and characters is really important, because not every person will be thrilled by the prospect of appearing in your novel.
Changing elements of the story
One of the benefits of writing a novel based on real life is that certain boring or complicated real-life elements can be altered to suit the flow of your story.
Have you ever added a few exciting details to a story you’re telling about your own life? This is just like that.
Here are a few structural elements you might change in your story:
- The order of events
- The outcome/ending of the story
- The location and time period
- Merging multiple characters into one
A note on the last point: sometimes a character just isn’t integral enough to the plot on their own.
In real life, we often have lots of people on the outskirts that affect our life, but aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
This can be hard to get across in the world of a novel, so sometimes it can be safer to roll two or more of these fringe characters into one.
There is a double benefit here: having fewer characters makes it easier for the reader to invest, and also allows you to turn multiple half-drawn characters into one well-rounded one.
Altering the characteristics of real-life people is another way to avoid too close a connection to those who might read your book and think, ‘Wait a minute, that’s me!’.
Consider changing these details:
- Physical appearance
- Profession and wealth
Keep in mind that all the changes you make affect the experience of the reader, and the marketing of your novel.
A novel can be based on true events, but it cannot be solely a true story. If a novel only involves real events, people and locations, then it becomes creative non-fiction.
This opens the author up to a host of critique if they do not adequately research or interview the people involved.
If this sounds like a drag to you, but you have a story you’d like to use, just make it a regular novel! But remember to change the details.
Most importantly, only use the concept as a leaping-off point for your novel. Every story can be made better with some extra details or trimming.