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Q & A – What Do You Owe the Real People Included in Your Book?

By Linda Ulleseit
October 15, 2021

What do we owe the historical figures in fictional stories? This was a burning question that I wanted answered when I began writing. I was advised that for people long gone there was no legal consequence for misrepresentations. There is also the question of how accurate is the history anyway? Was the story whitewashed? Embellished? Or was that person remembered more harshly than the truth would bear out? With history shrouded in half-truths, myths, and outright lies, and often a dearth of information, it may be impossible to paint an accurate picture. So what is our responsibility as writers? I asked our lanterns for their thoughts on the matter and got a wide range of responses.

Linda Ulleseit writes about, or takes inspirations from, her family’s ancestors.

“The real people in my book are usually people I never knew because they died before I was born or when I was young. Whether they were related to me or not, I do owe them as accurate a retelling of their story as I can manage. It’s important to me to take whatever family story inspired me to write about them and enrich it with researched details about the time period, its culture and attitudes. I also owe my readers a factual representation. In my current WIP however, character names are a problem. I have three Elizas, two Marys, two James’s, and several Winonas. I have to change some of those names to help the reader understand the story, but I will include an Author’s Note that gives the correct name. As a modern writer telling tales of the past, I know I can’t be 100% accurate all the time. I do, though, firmly believe I owe it to my characters who were real people to get it as right as I can.”

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

Ana Brazil features historical figures in her short stories.

“I’ve written & had published three short stories featuring real women: Lizzie Borden (Mr. Borden Does Not Quite Remem…); Kate Chopin (Kate Chopin Tussles with a Novel Ending); and Evelyn Nesbit (Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents). Since I write historical crime fiction, I’ve plopped all of these women into crime scenes, most of which I’ve cooked up for them.

“As I began to write each story, I never thought about what I might owe the memories of those real people (Lizzie died in 1927; Kate in 1904; and Evelyn in 1967). I just kept writing their stories because I had researched these women’s lives, felt that I understood their struggles, and also guessed they had some pivotal moments in their lives that had gone unrecorded. I wanted to imagine those moments–to pull out the conflict and explore the tension–with my stories.

“But the deeper I got into my stories–especially Kate Chopin’s–the more I wondered, “is it fair to write about Kate this way?” I tussled with that thought–just as Kate tussles with her novel ending–until I was finally satisfied that the ending of my story forced the reader to make a decision about Kate. 

“To feel good about including a real person in my historical crime fiction (which is important!), I need to do enough research to understand their life and place in history, and I need to make sure that I don’t write them as saying, doing, or thinking something that they wouldn’t have.

“This might sound limiting (or self-defeating!) but since I have a pretty expansive imagination when it comes to the intersection of people and history, I can see people from the past doing almost anything. Which sometimes includes murder.”

Rebecca D’Harlingue keeps her historical figures as side characters.

“We all want to be as faithful to the truth as we can when writing about real people. Since my novels are set in the seventeenth century, it’s often difficult to get details about individuals’ personal lives. In The Lines Between Us, the only historical people I mention are mostly authors and playwrights. Since the novel was concerned with their writings, my task was to be as faithful as I could in portraying the substance and feel of their works.

“In my work in progress, there is some interaction between my characters and actual people of the time, such as the owner of the printing house where my main character, a map colorist, is employed. My tendency is to use real people only tangentially, and I never ascribe bad actions or motivations to them, unless such things are known. Recently I’ve been asking myself about the desirability of including a person about whom very little is known. He was a cartographer and watercolorist, and he never married, living with his extended family until his death. Is it acceptable for me to imagine that he once loved one of my characters, only to have her spurn him? Would it serve the story just as well to have a totally fictional character? I haven’t yet decided.”

Kathryn Pritchett also writes about family ancestors.

“My first reaction is that I owe them a big thank you for all the interesting research they’ve prompted—including trips to places they lived!

“But on deeper reflection, I also owe them a fair but sympathetic retelling of their story. The way I look at it, they’ve granted me a stewardship of their story and I don’t want to betray their trust.”

Photo by Ed Robertson on Unsplash

If Edie Cay includes real people in her stories, they are peripheral characters. She has a more liberal approach.

“Real people are owed an author’s note, in my opinion. To say, yes, this person lived a life, is humanizing. What you, as the author, may have done to them in your book–whether you demonized them or martyred them, left out loves, friends, babies, what have you–you did it in service of the story. And real lives are not stories. We don’t have a good narrative arc with clear denouements and tidy resolutions. Heck, most of us don’t even get decent closure. By adding an author’s note, you acknowledge that. You acknowledge your fictional bent, your reconstructing powers, and say, “any inaccuracies are my fault alone.” It gives the truth back to the real person, and puts the fiction back in your book.”

Mari Christie has a little different take..

“The answer to that depends entirely on which people and which book. When my grandmother was in her last years, I felt strongly she deserved to hear the work I was basing (in part) on her childhood, and she did get to hear a bit of it before she died. But for the most part, “real people” who live in my historical books are long dead. For those in my ancestral line, I may owe them something existential, but nothing more, and for historical figures, still less.”

C.V. Lee writes historical biographical fiction, so most of her characters are recorded someplace in history.

“When I first began to write, I wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the real people featured in my book. However, with so little recorded about their lives, I was obliged to take what little information I had and leave the rest to my imagination. So while I may not have been privy to actual conversations or motivations, I asked myself a lot of why questions and did a lot of speculation. For example, one of my characters grew up in England. Around the age of eighteen, she married a forty-year-old man from the Channel Islands. Why? Let’s say I had a lot of fun working my conjecture into the narrative. So I’d say I took a lot of liberties even as I tried to stay within the confines of personality traits I could glean about them and the social mores of the time period.

“While I have every intention of reminding readers it’s a work of fiction, I sometimes wonder how close I’ve actually come to the truth. Sadly I’ll never know, but it made for a good story!”

Let us know in the comments your opinion on what historical people are owed when they are included in a work of fiction.

Linda Ulleseit
Written by Linda Ulleseit

Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).

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