If you are like me and spent years doing all this amazing family research, what do you finally do with it all? A compilation of facts about your family history may be interesting to you, a few close family members, and maybe other family historians, but what about the rest of the world? This article is about using your genealogical research as the starting point to create a compelling novel or short story. There is plenty of information available about how to turn your genealogical research into a nonfiction book as a legacy for your family but almost nothing about writing a fiction inspired by true events discovered in your research. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this kind of a project?
1. Making your story more readable
People tend to be drawn into a story if there is a certain structure to the story, or what myth expert, Joseph Campbell, might call The Monomyth. This is a basic pattern found in many narratives from around the world and from disparate times in history suggesting that humans respond in psychologically powerful ways if this pattern is applied. Real lives are generally complicated and full of tangents and mundane aspects of life that are either confusing or generally un-interesting to the typical reader. In other words, if you try to tell an ancestor’s story in the exact way it actually happened, chances are you will lose your reader’s interest. Even popular stories that say they are based on a true story are often just inspired by true events; meaning several characters or events have been collapsed into one, or timelines have been shortened, new events and characters have been added in, names and dates changed, and so on. According to Wikipedia Based on a True Story is a form of semi-fiction or mainly fiction implementing some nonfiction. Most good writers will alter true events quite extensively in order use proper story structure and capture more fully the universal truths within the hero’s journey.
2. Protecting people’s privacy and avoiding legal hassles
Another compelling reason to turn your research into fiction or semi-fiction is to protect people’s privacy and, in some cases, even avoid legal hassles. Some people don’t want their life stories made public to others especially if there is controversial information included. Even those who agreed to be identified in a story have been known to later try to sue the author once it is on the market and they read the final version. Even if you change their name, some family members have objected because the surrounding facts still point directly to them. Also you may feel free to talk about a relative that has passed away but later discover their descendants are unhappy with the story being made available to the general public. In some cases, you may even want to change the gender, the relationship, and the time period in order to protect yourself and others.
3. Bringing forth universal truths
At the core of why people do genealogical research you will often find people’s desire to understand themselves more fully. The journeys of our ancestors can help use learn some of life’s greatest lessons. Using proper story structure will help you uncover the essence of their journey, the universal truths they had to uncover, and thus allow people a greater understanding of the human story as a whole through your writing. Many people discover through their research amazing stories, sometimes of their own family and sometimes of other people and historical figures that shaped their destiny. You may choose to simply let your research activate your imagination so that your writing that brings the experiences of your ancestors to much wider range of people.
1. You might lose some purists
Some people will only read a book if they think it’s a totally true story rather than semi-biographical. This is a valid concern and so you will need to decide who you are writing down these stories for. If keeping things totally factual is important to you and your readers then you will need do extensive fact checking, and double checking your sources. You may also need to leave parts of the story out and if you can’t find hard facts to prove what happened.
2. Your ancestors’ stories are already in a readable story form
The actual story of your ancestors may be already a strong narrative and therefore embellishing it may actually ruin the story. It is unusual but you can find compact stories full of intrigue, dramatic tension and foreshadowing without much help from you as a writer. In those cases you don’t need to create a story structure around it. This is usually the case if you take just one incident in a person’s life such as surviving a shipwreck or winning an important audition that led to huge career success.
I chose a novel format rather than a memoir or biography format for my book, The Change Artist, because of a variety of reasons. Some or all of these reasons may feel relevant for you in deciding how to structure the stories of your ancestors.
- I couldn’t find all the details of what happened to my family due to records either not existing or being lost. Rather than leave parts of the story blank I chose to invent them, or draw conclusions based on a number of existing facts.
- I wanted to protect the privacy of living relatives.
- I found other stories of people who lived at the same time as my ancestors and wanted their stories told, as well. While those meetings may never have happened, the facts of their lives got to live on the page and be shared with subsequent generations.
Feel free to comment on what you think may be the advantages or disadvantages of turning your research into a story or novel.