Table of Contents
- Part I: Approaching the true story
- 1) Truth is stranger than fiction
- 2) Establishing the facts
- 3) Your story vs. someone else’s story
- 4) Fictionalizing the story
- 5) Creating the characters
- 6) The moral of the story
- Part II: Writing the novel
- 1) Distancing from the real story
- 2) Plotting the story – creating order out of chaos
- 3) Creating a character-driven story
- 4) Treating the events with respect
- 5) Avoiding self-insertion and wish-fulfillment
- 6) Taking liberties
- Part III: Publishing a novel based on a true story
- 1) Determine the level of truth
- 2) Who are the people affected by the story?
- 3) Objectivity in the face of personal experience
- 4) Themes, ideas, and morals of the story
- 5) Editing, proofreading, and publishing the novel
Writing a novel based on a true story is one of the most difficult feats for a writer. It’s probably easier to write an epic fantasy novel, in comparison, because in a fantasy novel, you do not have to worry about the truth, the real people your story will affect, and of course, the infinitesimal possibility that the real story is not as dramatic and as impactful as you may want it to be.
However, like with anything in life, when there is a will, there is a way, and if you have decided to tell a true story, we have created this guide to help you achieve that goal. There are two different types of novels like this: one that is based on your own true story, your own experience, and of course, the other type is the story that is based on someone else’s real life. Because of that, we will start with how to approach the story, and draw clear lines between what it means to write your own true story, or someone else’s.
Part I: Approaching the true story
It’s exciting to tell a true story, to look at something that happened to you, personally, or someone else, and realize that there is something universal about it, something that a lot of people would relate to and draw comfort from understanding that they are not alone in living through something that has had such an impact on their lives and psychological makeup.
However, this is the moment when you really have to make a very big decision about how to proceed. You have a real story, and there are two different ways to tell it. One of them is in the form of a memoir, a biography, or an autobiography, and the other is to tell a fiction story that will be based on the real one. In this guide, we’re talking about telling a fictional story based on a real one, however, it needs to be mentioned that some stories are huge, traumatic, and have had a great impact in a person’s life. As such, it may be more beneficial and therapeutic for the person to tell the story in the format of a memoir or a biography.
On the other hand, if you feel that a fictional story will be the better way to go, then using our guide will help you tell that fictional story in the best way possible – and with the utmost respect for the real story.
1) Truth is stranger than fiction
How often have you read a novel and marveled at how it made you think about real life issues and real life situations? This happens because a writer will always draw, consciously or subconsciously, from their own experience. Many authors will say: all my characters are essentially me, based on myself, with huge exaggerations, in terms of the characters’ traits.
When you’re telling a story based on a true story, this will become even more apparent. Just think of the lives of people today, who live in places where their freedom of simply being themselves is at stake? How strange will a life of such a person seem to someone who’s lived most of their lives in relative freedom of thought, speech, and choosing a profession?
As such, you may find facts of the true story you’re trying to tell too subjective or even too huge in scale for the novel you would be writing. The goal is to not diminish a person’s experience by adapting it for an audience that may never have to – or never has had to – live through such a thing. But, have no fear! If all the readers wanted to do was connect to a character and have their lives be as close to their own as possible, we would not have the fantasy and science fiction genre. Maybe we would not even have the thriller genre, because how often do people go through a thriller in real life?
2) Establishing the facts
It is imperative to establish the facts first. What happened, when it happened, and to whom it happened. Then, you need to dig deeper, and find the universal truth in that experience. What did the person learn? More importantly, if that person had something terrible happen to them, how did they get over it?
A good example of real life getting properly depicted in a novel can be found in the novel called Ten Tiny Breaths, by K.A. Tucker, even though the novel is not based on a true story. The protagonist has gone through a traumatic experience in her teenage years, which has shaped her in a certain specific way that showed she was not dealing with it properly. And, unlike most romance novels – especially New Adult romance novels – the protagonist does not heal through the power of love, she heals through the power of professional therapy. It’s a huge deviation from the usual romance novel plot – because it’s a lot closer to real life.
When the readers pick up a novel based on a true story, they are willing to suspend some disbelief in terms of how possible that story is in real life – however, since the novel promises a true story, the readers will be quicker to judge a novel that deviates too much from the original story. For example, let’s take the film Changeling (2008), that depicts the real story of Mrs. Collins, whose son had been kidnapped during the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders. If the film had had the protagonist, Mrs. Collins, happily reunited with her son at the end, it would have done a disservice to the real Mrs. Collins, and the real tragedy of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders.
3) Your story vs. someone else’s story
There is a difference between writing your story, and writing someone else’s story. Let’s talk about your story first.
When writing your own real story, you need to be prepared to tackle everything about what happened to you, how it affected you, how it affected other people, and what you learned from it. For that reason, again, consider turning it into a memoir. Doing this will make it easier for you to fictionalize your story later on.
If you’re telling someone else’s story, however, then allow that person to have as much control as possible over the story itself – because you may end up hurting that person, rather than helping them tell their story. Of course, your novel may revolve around a real story that happened tens, hundreds, or even thousand years ago, in which case, prepare yourself for an extensive research in order to get all the facts. This includes newspapers – if available, historical accounts, non-fiction books written on the story (if there have been). Remember, you’re not writing a historical recount of what happened, you’re writing a novel based on that event, so there are some liberties that you can take (which will cover a bit later in this guide), but first and foremost, you’ve got to treat the people who lived the real story with respect, including your own self, if you’re basing the novel on your own personal experience.
4) Fictionalizing the story
However, fictionalizing your story is a whole different process.
When it comes to fictionalizing your own story, you may be tempted to include every scene of your life related to that specific time in your life – so much so, that the story – in terms of plotting and characterization – gets bogged down. This can happen even if you’re writing a character-driven novel rather than a plot-driven one. As such, the best way to tell the story is as if it happened to a fictional character – changing the names and the personalities of the real people involved in it – including yourself.
There are two different ways of writing a novel in relation to a true story, especially one that has happened to someone else. The first is when it’s based on a true story, and when it’s inspired by a true story.
Based on a true story: this type of novel is often as close to the real story as possible. However, that does not mean that the author cannot take some liberties with it – again, it is not a historical, non-fictional account of the true story, but rather, a possible glimpse into what the people may or may not have been feeling during that specific parts of their lives. For example, take Hannah Kent’s novels, Burial Rites and The Good People. The first one tells the story of the last woman put to death in Iceland, the second is about the women who committed infanticide in Ireland back in 1825 and were acquitted by the court. While Kent has taken liberties with the characters, not only does she not stray away from the facts, but she also included, in Burial Rites, snippets of the real documentation of the events at that time. As such, these types of novels almost never change the actual events that happened – events that are documented by newspapers and historical books; what they actually do is give us a what-if type of glimpse into the real people’s thoughts. In other words, the readers get to imagine what these real people could have been like and what they could have been thinking at the time.
Inspired by a true story: When you’re writing a story inspired by a true story, you get more freedom. For example, let’s take the novel The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. The premise of the novel relies around a police shooting, and the author originally wrote it as a short story in reaction to the shooting of Oscar Grant by the police. While the events in the novel are fiction, they are inspired by a true event that could happen to a lot of people, which is what makes the novel so powerful in its premise. Another example of such a novel is Romanov, by Nadine Brandes. Inspired by the story of Anastasia Romanov, it retells the story with some fantasy elements like magic and spells, and attempts to offer some hope to their story. However, that particular story would have worked better had it been fully fictionalized, and had there been a note that the original inspiration for the story lay in the fate of the Romanovs.
5) Creating the characters
Here, we are going to talk about creating the characters in three different situations, depending on three different types of stories: your own story, someone else’s story, and a historical event.
When you’re writing your own story, you have the right to fictionalize it as much as you want. You can keep the characters as close to real life as you want, or you can create fictional versions of them – so much so, that even if the novel is read by people who know you may not recognize who’s who in the novel compared to real life. What you need to do is create compelling characters that have layers – characters that are not too perfect, and characters that feel realistic. Remember, within the course of the story, most of the major characters should undergo an arc of change. Otherwise, your characters will be two dimensional cutouts that serve only as props or mouthpieces to deliver crucial information in the story.
When you’re writing someone else’s story, you will need to do your research in order to do justice to the story and the persons who lived the story. This includes making interviews, asking difficult questions, and getting permission from the people as to which aspects of their story and their personal lives are you allowed to use in the novel. Then, create the characters as best as you possibly can, identifying the changes that they’ve gone through in real life in order to portray them – in both a realistic and a respectful manner.
On the other hand, when you’re writing a novel based on – not inspired by – a true historical event (like in the example above about the Romanovs), and keeping it as close to reality as possible without fictionalizing to the extent that it’s a story that happens to fictional characters (like in The Hate U Give), then there are certain things that you can do to create the characters in the best possible way.
First thing to do is to gather all available interviews – whether written or taken on film, which of course, depends on the actual time period when the events happened in history. Second thing to do is to research the actual time period – again, depending on the available information, you can get written accounts, photographs, and videos. What you need to achieve is to create a character that is well rounded and realistic for the time period. So, your research needs to include things like fashion, culture, architecture, means of transport, interior design even, to get the historical aspect right, but also to be able to create a character who will dress, act, and think in an authentic manner for the time period.
6) The moral of the story
Previously, we spoke of the universal in the unique – of how one person’s experience can be a representation of many other people experiencing something similar. The moral of the story is something completely different, it’s a statement about a certain aspect of the reality of what it means to be human, whether in our current modern world or the world of the past.
For example, let’s take Hannah Kent’s novel again, the one titled The Good People. The story itself is a harrowing one to read, but the moral of that story is even more harrowing to think about. There, the women who have committed infanticide get to “get away with it” due to the overly superstitious community they live in. On the other hand, considering the consequences the women face in the aftermath of the trial – one woman has her house burned down, the other one has been evicted, can be taken as hopeful – maybe the law was behind the times, but the people were still aware of what was right and wrong and took matters into their own hands.
Some stories have a definite moral to them, something that the author has deemed important enough to present, and there is no doubt as to the interpretation. However, often, there are morals, or realities, that may get represented by accident. This is true in any novel, but when the novel is based on a true story, it becomes even more important to prevent accidental implications. For example, let’s go back to Ten Tiny Breaths by K. A. Tucker. We already mentioned that the protagonist getting better in terms of her mental health due to the power of psychology and therapy was more realistic. On the other hand, many romances would have gone the other way and attributed that process to the power of love – which rarely happens in real life. So, before you begin writing the novel, make sure that the events in your story do not send the wrong message out into the world, because ultimately, it has the potential to harm the reception of your novel, hurt a lot of your readers, and ultimately, have a great negative effect on your career and credibility as a writer.
Part II: Writing the novel
Every writer has a different way of writing a novel. Some writers have a daily goal they have to reach, like Stephen King, for example, who aims for at least six pages. Some writers have to plan everything in the novel ahead of time, which can be planning each scene, or each chapter, before they write it. Others are incapable of writing a story if they know what happens ahead of time, like George R.R. Martin.
However, writing a novel based on a true story does not allow for such freedom, because you already know how the story ends – it has already happened, whether to you or someone else. As such, if you are a writer like George R. R. Martin, you may find the process of writing the first draft very difficult. As such, applying Stephen King’s goals to your writing method might be useful to keep you disciplined and to prevent you from taking too long to write your novel. On the other hand, stories based on true stories take a lot of research, so, for example, it may not be a good idea to try to write your novel during NaNoWriMo, unless you have actually completed your research – and crafted your outline, plotted the storyline, and developed your characters (which can be said is necessary for any novel that you wish to write during NaNoWriMo).
But, here, we are not going to talk so much about the process of writing – that is, in any event, unique to each writer. Instead, we will give you some tools to use as you are writing the first draft, so that you can, at the very least, have a first draft that would not need too much editing before it becomes a manuscript.
1) Distancing from the real story
There is something about reading novels and watching films based on a true story that automatically tugs on the heartstrings. It’s one thing to read a fictional story that could have happened to a real person, it’s a completely different thing to know that this thing, this harrowing, traumatic thing happened to a real life person.
It’s even more difficult to write it.
Moreover, in this regard, it does not matter whether the story happened to you, a friend of yours, or a historical figure, like Anastasia Romanov. True events that get immortalized in the form of novels and films are rarely stories about people who lived ordinary lives and had no traumatic events happening to them. More often than not, these stories are difficult to hear about, and when the moment comes for you to write about them, it can have a huge effect on your own, personal mental health, which in turn will have an effect on the writing process.
So, it’s necessary to distance yourself from the real story. There are a few ways you can do it:
- Think of it as something that is over: especially if you’re writing about something that happened to you personally. Remind yourself every day of what you learned while it was happening to you. If it’s someone else’s story, remind yourself that they have either survived it and are okay now, or, they are in a place where nothing can hurt them.
- Fictionalize the story to an unrecognizable extent: instead of writing the story using real people’s names and real places, set the story completely into a fantasy realm. In this case, your story will be ‘inspired by a true story’ rather than ‘based on a true story,’ however, both can have an equal effect on the readers, because the readers will understand, in both cases, that this story happened to a real person, in one form or another.
- Persevere: if you want to tell the story as it really happened, then remind yourself that the story needs to be told, that the world needs to know about it, and focus on the desired aftermath – what happens after you’ve written and published the novel.
2) Plotting the story – creating order out of chaos
Real life is chaotic, and often, no matter how much we want to make sense of it and seek the patterns, the correlation between cause and effect in real life is rarely direct. In a novel, however, there is controlled chaos – events that do seem unrelated become related by the end of the novel, whether directly or indirectly. Actually, the more related all events and scenes in a novel are, the better.
However, when you’re writing a novel based on a true story, what you’re seeking is a mix of the uncontrolled chaos that is prevalent in real life, and the controlled chaos that authors create in a novel. As such, plotting the events of such a novel can be difficult, but that does not mean that it cannot be done. Again, unless you are writing a detailed account of what happened without any kind of creative liberties, like a memoir, there are ways in which you can plot the novel that will create a gripping story.
Now, the basis of plotting, when you’re using a single protagonist, has three important beats. First is the presentation of the problem, the event that happens that sets the story in motion. What follows is the protagonist trying to solve the problem – and since we humans always go for the easiest solutions first – the protagonist takes the path of least resistance and makes a decision. In other words, you’ve reached the first plot point, the moment when it seems that the problem has been solved. The middle of the story is the protagonist getting more and more proof that the solution was not really a solution, and that something needs to be done to solve the issue. When the protagonist finally comes to the correct solution, you have reached the second plot point, which enables you to move the story forward into the conclusion.
Real life stories often do follow this path, and when you’re writing a story like that, you can find those beats easily if you find them.
For example, let’s take the real story of the Romanov family – and please note that we are only using this real story as an example, and we do not claim with any of sort of certainty that what will follow will be a true fact. The Tsar, Nikolai II, abdicated the throne and he and his family spent some time awaiting trial. Whether he believed that they would get a fair trial or not, we will never know, but we do know that at one point, they must have realized that there were no plans for a fair trial – the daughters had sown their jewels into their gowns, probably as a part of a plan to escape. However, it was too late.
As such, we can take two characters, based on the Nikolai II and one of his daughters, and create a plot around them. We will not take Anastasia due to the fact that Anastasia was barely 12 years old, and her story is often more related to the uncertainty of whether she survived the firing squad or not.
Now, Nikolai II could have begun as a person who was presented with the problem of protecting his family. He abdicated the throne – making a decision that followed the path of least resistance – in the hopes of getting a fair trial. However, when the subsequent events, like their exile and the growing power of the Bolshevik party, became apparent, he decided to instruct his family to run – the decision that retrospectively seemed right all along. The conclusion and subsequent deaths are not the resolution that he might have wanted, but the plot works because it’s focused on his character’s growth.
Or, we can take Olga, since she was the eldest. Perhaps she understood from the beginning what awaited them. Presented with the same inciting incident – her father has abdicated the throne and they are awaiting trial – she understood that they had to run. She tries to convince her father and fails – which is the wrong decision for her. The same events follow – and she understands that they have to run, regardless of whether her father approves, or even accompanies them. So, she instructs her sisters and brother to hide as many of the family jewels in their clothing as they can, and makes an escape plan. Again, it’s too late, and the conclusion only brings them to the firing squad.
So, we have one story, two different points of view, and both are slightly different in nature – which we will discuss in the following part of the guide: creating a character driven story.
3) Creating a character-driven story
Many think that there is only type of change in a character: for the better. However, that type of change – for the better – is very subjective and can mean different things to different people, both real and fictional. As such, when it comes to true stories, we can define three different types of character’s arcs.
The first type is a negative arc: where the character starts off with a set of positive beliefs about the world – a certain sense of naiveté even – and, by the end of the novel, they have come to learn that the world is a lot darker, and have accepted the types of beliefs that can be considered negative, or, the polar opposite of what the character believed in the first place. From the example we presented above, we can say that this type of character’s arc would fit the character of Nikolai II. He may have begun with the belief that the system will protect him and his family from execution, only to understand differently by the end of the novel, and, casting all faith in the system aside, instruct his daughters to hide the jewels and escape.
The second type is a flat arc: where the character begins the story with a certain set of beliefs about the world, or an institution. And, when they are presented with a problem, they choose the path that makes sense the most to them based on that set of beliefs. And, as such, the first decision they make – the wrong decision – is only wrong because they go against their better judgment and their instincts. But the events that follow not only show the character that they were correct all along, but their beliefs are also reinforced, and they finally make the right decision to act upon their original instinct. And, from the example in our previous section, we can safely say that the character of Olga Romanov would fit that bill.
The third type of character’s arc is a positive change: where the protagonist starts off with beliefs that would be conventionally considered negative: that there is no justice in the world, or, that fortune does not favor the brave, only the lucky, and so forth. By the end of the novel, the character has new beliefs that can be thought of as positive.
4) Treating the events with respect
When it comes to writing a novel based on a true historic event, the best way to treat the events that happened with respect is to present those events in the most realistic way possible. If your story is using a real story as inspiration, however, this becomes more difficult and complicated, because you will be presenting real events in a fictional manner. On the other hand, even in that situation, the best thing to do is to create the world and the characters in a way that resembles real life very closely, in a way that does not romanticize any aspect of it, and does not dramatize the events to a higher degree just for the sake of adding more drama.
If you’re writing a true story based on something that happened to a real person – who is still alive and able to tell their perspective on what happened to them – then the best thing to do is to tell them every detail of how their story will be represented and get their view on things. Even if the story is fictionalized, even if you will not use their real name and appearance in the novel, you will still need their permission, unless you want to risk getting a lawsuit against you, or the ruination of your career as a writer, maybe even right as it was beginning.
On the other hand, when you’re writing your own story, the ball is in your own court. Depending on the story itself and what really happened, you have the right to tell your story in your own way. This does not mean that you can do whatever you want, especially if it’s something that can be independently confirmed or denied – like whether you really worked as a nurse in a hospital full of COVID-19 patients, for example – but, even in this case, it will depend on whether you are writing a novel that is based on your true story, or, it is inspired by something that happened to you.
5) Avoiding self-insertion and wish-fulfillment
It goes without saying that when it comes to writing a novel based on a true story, there is little to no room (make that zero room at all) for self-insertion and wish-fulfillment. The only type of story that offers this opportunity is when you’re writing your own true story – even if you’re writing a memoir. What does this really mean? It means that you might be tempted to adjust some events that make you, personally, look bad, in order to avoid negative backlash and to prevent the readers from having a negative opinion about you. As such, it might be better to fictionalize the story, and to write a novel that is inspired by something that happened to you, rather than to tell your true story.
However, that type of story – one that’s more fictional than real – offers even more opportunities for self-insertion, and even more opportunities for wish-fulfillment. For example, let’s say that you wish to tell the story of a relationship that had a great impact on you, a type of relationship that many people can relate to because they have lived it. You have fictionalized it, you have changed the names of the real people who were involved, and you even created characters that can only loosely be connected to the real ones. And now you’re tempted to give this fictional couple a happy ending – but in real life, that relationship did not end on a happy note. This is a result of the natural instinct of the author to give their characters a happy ending, a conventional, romantic happy ending, one that is followed by every romance novel out there. However, to do so is to treat with disrespect not only the events and the relationship that you lived through, but all the other people who have experienced a similar relationship, with the same type of not-so-happy ending.
A good example of a novel that completely avoids this is the novel It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover. The author herself has stated in the afterword of the novel that it’s not based on her own life, but on her mother’s life. The novel falls more into the “inspired by real events” category rather than the “based on a true story,” because the characters in the novel are completely fictional – but the gritty details of the relationship are very close to the reality of what really happened. And, while you read the novel, even you, as a reader, might be tempted to root for the couple, but at the end, the relationship does not end with a happily ever after. The ending is real to real life. According to the author, her father spent the rest of his days in love with her mother, but they were never together again. That’s what makes the novel so powerful and real, even though it follows characters that are completely fictional.
6) Taking liberties
So, if you’re not allowed to indulge in wish-fulfillment, how can you be allowed to take liberties in your novel, when it’s supposed to be based on a true story?
Well, we can say – the type of liberties that do not negate the reality of what happened. It goes without saying that in our examples earlier in this part of the guide – the examples about the Romanov family, we have taken a lot of liberties. However, even so, our examples follow a certain type of logic based on what is historically confirmed about them – the Romanov girls were wearing a lot of jewels sewn into their clothing. What we do not know is whether this was a part of their escape plan. Again, it could have been, but not necessarily so. In the same line, we did not use Anastasia due to her age – she was too young to have thought of that, and to have possibly crafted an escape plan. In other words, you have to take liberties when the historical accounts of the story you want to portray in your novel are lacking.
The best way to do this is to follow a sense of logic – in the same way that you have to create characters whose appearance, thoughts and actions will make sense in terms of the time period when they were alive. And, of course, if you’re writing a novel based on something that happened to a person to whom you have access to, any liberties you wish to take when you tell their story should be run by them first, before you write them into the novel.
And, on the other side of the coin are stories that are inspired by real events and real people. Let’s take Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With Us, because it’s a real novel that we can take a good look at. The author tells us, in the afterword, that some of the events that happen between the two main characters in the novel are real – like the scene where Lily, the protagonist, is first hit by her neurosurgeon boyfriend Ryle – but some of the other events are completely invented. This does not make the novel less powerful, because the other events are also realistic – they are things that happen to other people, other women, who are in abusive relationships and feel like they can’t get out.
Part III: Publishing a novel based on a true story
Once you’ve finished writing the first draft of the novel, do not fall into thinking that most of your job has been done. In fact, it is only the beginning. Publishing a novel is a long process – often, it can take months or even a year until your novel appears in digital or physical bookstores.
The first step, of course, is to edit the novel, and while this process is going, you may want to look for a literary agent, if you’ve decided to get published the traditional way and do not have a literary agent yet. While some publishing houses DO accept unsolicited manuscripts, most of them do not, and it’s imperative to find a good agent that works with authors who publish novels based on true stories in order to increase your chances of a publishing house picking up your book.
There is a certain sense of having an advantage here – because your novel is based on a true story, there may be intense public interest in it, enough to increase your chances of getting published traditionally. However, this is not a guarantee that everything will go smoothly.
What you can do to ensure that publishers pick up your novel is to create a manuscript that is the best version of the first draft you wrote initially. This means that the story needs to be tight, the historical events are presented as realistically as possible, and you have made it clear to anyone who reads your manuscript what level of reality is presented in your novel. When your manuscript is the best version of itself, even if you’re self-publishing, your chances of success with the novel increase.
As such, in this part, we will present you with some things that you need to be careful with before you begin the process of publishing your novel, and we hope that they help you achieve your goals.
1) Determine the level of truth
Previously, we spoke of taking liberties when necessary, and that when you do take these liberties, you need to ensure that even those liberties follow a sense of logic. After you’ve written your first draft, you need to analyze it and determine whether all the events that must not be misrepresented are correct. Of course, this will depend on what type of novel you wrote.
For example, if your novel is inspired by real events, and not strictly based on them, you’ve got more wiggle room, and you can determine the level of truth on your own, to the best of your ability, and get a beta reader – who can be a friend or another writer – to help you with the more crucial events that do deserve to be treated with respect (like a school shooting, for example). Similarly, if your novel is based on your own true story, you are the only one who can determine the level of truthfulness to the events in your novel. Additionally, a family member can also help you by reading your draft and giving you their perspective – regardless of whether they were directly involved in the story or not.
If your novel is based on a real story that happened to another person, then the best thing you can do is to give it to them for review, if it’s possible.
If your novel is based on a real historical event – like in our examples about the Romanov family – then the best thing to do is get a historical expert’s eyes on your draft, so that they can give you their feedback, not only in whether they enjoyed your novel, but also whether the novel is historically correct, and whether the liberties you have taken with the story and the characters make sense.
In fact, even as we were working on this guide and decided to use the Romanov family’s story as an example, we reached out to someone with more knowledge than us and asked whether our examples could make sense in a fictionalized story. It was what led us to change from Anastasia, whom we were originally going to use as a character example, to Olga, the eldest daughter, who fit better in the examples were creating specifically for this guide, although Tatiana was also a viable candidate.
2) Who are the people affected by the story?
At this point, it’s easy to deduce as to who will be affected by your novel the most – the people who have lived through such a story. It’s what makes The Hate U Give such an important novel. It’s not just because a lot of African American people (and people of other minority groups in the USA) have lived through that, but because society as a whole was ignoring the blatant issues of racism and racial profiling in the USA.
As such, before you determine whether your novel has finally reached its publishable manuscript stage, you need to think of the people who will be affected by it. Of course, this applies to novels that depict true stories based on historical events also, but only to some extent. We chose the example of the Romanovs in this guide precisely for the reason that it had the potential to affect the least amount of people, but we also chose It Ends With Us precisely because it affects a lot of people, and it’s a novel that has done justice to abusive and toxic relationships. Similarly, we chose the film Changeling, not only because it depicts the real life story of Mrs. Collins in a very realistic way that is close to the truth, but also because it presents a reality that was very close to the real experiences of women in that time period, who were often labeled as mad, unstable, and borderline schizophrenic when they decided to fight the patriarchal society of LA of that time – and it presents a very grim, but realistic picture of how women were treated back then, and it can show how far women have come in terms of their rights and their credibility (not that that particular issue has been resolved completely).
As such, it’s very important to keep in mind that there will be readers who have been through something similar as the novel you’re writing, and before you proceed with publication, you need to ensure that your novel does justice to the experience and the story. If there is something that you think might send the wrong message, then either make sure that the right message is clear as day, or remove that aspect from your novel before you publish it.
3) Objectivity in the face of personal experience
In this part, we will specifically refer to novels that are based on personal experience, or stories that affect you, as the writer, personally, because the real story happened to someone close to you.
As such, it can be difficult to remain objective in that situation. You may have demonized someone in your novel without realizing it, or you may have presented some events in a different light that completely misses the reality of the event. And, this actually may happen if you’re telling the story of someone close to you. After all, we’re more protective of the ones we love than we are of our own selves sometimes.
How to prevent accidental subjectivity in your writing?
The bad news is that it’s impossible to be completely objective in your writing. The good news is that you can get a beta reader who will help you determine this. However, you need to make it clear to the beta reader – regardless of whether they are a person who is your family or a friend, or a complete stranger – and make it clear to them that you’re looking for passages in the narrative and other signs of subjectivity. This does require a certain sense of honesty that not a lot of people are normally willing to admit to – however, bias and subjectivity are things that the readers can pick up on, and so will editors and potential agents who will read your story before it (hopefully) hits the shelves. As such, it’s one of the best things you can do to ensure that your personal bias does not get into the way of telling a good story that will potentially touch the hearts of many readers, and even make them feel less alone in their pain and suffering.
4) Themes, ideas, and morals of the story
We’ve talked before about the morals of a story, and how some morals are intentionally presented, while others can slip by without you, as the writer, meaning to. So, before you publish the novel, you have to determine what were the original themes you wanted to tackle, what were the original “statements” – if we can call them that – that you felt had to be presented, as well as the ideas of how things could or should be, and yes, what was the original moral of the story. And then, you need to take a very objective look at your story and see if everything has been presented as you wanted it to be.
Again, another set of eyes on your manuscript will help you determine whether you’ve achieved everything you wanted to in terms of the themes and ideas of the novel, but another pair of eyes will also let you know whether you’ve accidentally implied something that you did not intend. To illustrate this, let’s take another look at The Good People by Hannah Kent. At a first glance, yes, it is a depressing story. The obvious themes in that regard are clear – society was ruled, during that time period, by superstition, which was what motivated the women to commit the infanticide in the first place, and what made the law – such as it was back then – to acquit them of the crime. On the other hand, the aftermath of the acquittal can be taken as a good sign for the future – and since we are living in that future, we can say that yes, humanity and the law has changed for the better (although not completely, since religion is still used to perpetuate and justify heinous crimes even today – so much that it even can be said that The Good People reflects how far we still need to go as a global community). However, we cannot be sure whether that was intentional on the author’s part or not.
The important thing to ensure is that there is no preaching – just a representation of themes and ideas that make the reader think, rather than make them feel like they’ve just been given a lesson by a very intense teacher.
5) Editing, proofreading, and publishing the novel
Finally, we’ve come to the last – but not least important – step that you need to take before you publish the novel, and that is editing and proofreading your novel. Ideally, these would be two separate steps.
What you need to look out for during the editing includes the correlation between cause and effect – making sure that the events in your novel follow a sense of logic where one event is caused by another. Second, you need to ensure that the protagonist has a sense of agency – they take many of the decisions that move the story forward, even if that story is focused more on the character rather than the plot.
Next is consistency and accuracy in terms of time and place, especially if this is a historical novel set in a certain time period.
Before you continue with proofreading, you need to ensure that the narrative, or the writing style, is both consistent to the character (depending on whether you write in first or third person point of view), and that all of the characters have distinctive voices that would not be mixed – especially if you’re using more than one point of view.
Finally, when it comes to proofreading, you need to pay attention to grammar, punctuation, misspelled words, wrong words (for example, bare instead of bear, and so on), and repeated words that make for an unpleasant reading experience. (Like constantly using the word like, for example).
Once your manuscript is ready, as we’ve already said, there are two paths you can take to publication. The first path is traditional publishing; the second path is self-publishing. Both can be difficult – do not think that self-publishing is an easy process. Additionally, do not think that your credibility as an author will be higher just because your novel gets picked up by a major publishing house (check out what happened, in the background, with the novel American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and the subsequent backlash – and it’s a novel that is inspired by current events happening to real people – there is a reason why we never used it as a good example in this guide).
Most novels, or, we should say, most great novels have some truth in them. A good novel can be the perfect escape for the reader – and it will also make them think critically about certain issues and realities of life. But, most of them offer a certain sense of escapism.
Novels based on true stories are not like that. The readers are always aware that there is a certain level of reality to them – regardless of whether the novel is based on a true story or inspired by a real story or real events – which makes their impact greater than the impact of a “regular” fiction novel. However, there are stories out there that need to be told, in one form or another. Stories of the people who suffered in the Holocaust, stories of people who are suffering today, in one way or another, due to oppression, forced immigration, or simply because of the color of their skin or their gender. Stories that depict people who live in abusive households and have no way out. Stories of people whom the system has failed, whom we have failed as a community.
It is the novels based on true stories – and those that are inspired by them – that bring awareness to these issues, that bring the suffering of these people to light. That’s what makes these novels so important, so impactful. It is the reason why these novels need to be written with care and respect, and why they need to be in the limelight, because in turn, they shine that light on those who may be otherwise overlooked.
As such, we hope that our guide helps in that process, and that the authors and aspiring authors who have decided to tell these stories, create novels that are the best possible versions of themselves while being respectful to the real people who have lived through similar things, because that way, together, we get to shine a light on those who need it the most.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.