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Writing Family History: Finding the Fiction in the Facts

Posted on November 9, 2023

“I’m writing my family history.”

Whenever I teach a writing workshop for adults, as I did this week (‘Writing Through The Messy Middle’), I ask what people are writing and there is invariably at least one person who is creating a book based on family history.

Our family history can contain some incredible story material – just ask bestselling children’s author Katrina Nannestad, who’s new novel ‘Silver Linings’ is based on her own family’s story. And yes, it’s a novel.

Because one thing I always ask those writing family history is whether they’re creating a non-fiction version, a memoir or a novel. There are good reasons for choosing any of these options, but one thing is certain – you need a clear picture before you start of precisely which you’re undertaking.

One person who understands the tension that arises between telling a compelling story and ‘sticking to the facts’ is Pauline Wilson, whose first novel ‘Conflict At Hanging Rock’ was based on her own family history, and whose latest novel ‘Breaking Free‘, also draws on family ties – though much more loosely.

In this guest post, Pauline looks at how to find the story in the facts.

 

Writing Family History as Fiction

By Pauline Wilson

Writing family history as a novelMy Great Uncle Jim was once heard to say (pointing emphatically over his shoulder), “never look back, always look forward”.

This has always made me wonder what the old people would say to me digging up the past and putting family stories out for all the world to read. My Genealogy blog is full of stories from the past.

When I decided to write my first novel, Conflict at Hanging Rock, Uncle Jim’s words came back to me.

I had gathered up so much information about this very infamous branch of the family, I felt I knew enough to write their true story. There was plenty of tension to include: convicts, family feuds, a community divided, an illegitimate child and so much more.

But then I wondered whether non-fiction was the best approach.

Would there be descendants of this branch of the family who would be offended by hearing the full story? All of the events happened well over 100 years ago, so everyone concerned is dead. But I had to think of the living.

That was when I decided I would write the story as fiction and changed all the names. I soon found that this decision allowed me to add dialogue and fill gaps in the knowledge I had.

In short, it gave me more freedom to write a compelling story.

But there was still a tension for me between telling a compelling story and sticking as close as possible to the facts. Discussions with my editor were interesting as she tried to help me improve my book despite my determination to stick as closely as possible to the facts.

 

Treading the line between story and history

 

writing family historyMy latest novel, ‘Breaking Free’, whilst still telling a family story, is much less factual – and there are several reasons for this.

One reason is that the protagonist is a woman and, sadly, women left a much lesser footprint on history. Simply put, I knew a lot less about my protagonist, even though she is inspired by my Great Grandmother (pictured left on her wedding day).

Researching my family history, I found a report of my Great Grandmother having spent time in the Kew Lunatic Asylum, which prompted me to write the story. But apart from that report and dates and locations, I knew very little.

I also took inspiration from other authors.

Mary Anne O’Connor weaves many of her family stories into her excellent books, including Where Fortune Lies, In a Great Southern Land and Sisters of Freedom.

Darry Fraser drew inspiration from family stories in her book The Forthright Woman.

I recently read Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell, an expertly written story of their search for Charlotte Waring, their great, great, great, great grandmother.

They too struggled with how to tell the true story. They didn’t want it to just be a dry biography and wondered how to keep to the facts and still keep it interesting.

That very struggle was why I decided to fictionalise my story. In their book, Forsyth and Murrell mention Emma Darwin who was another author who struggled with this when writing her book about Charles Darwin.

Emma Darwin wrote that her book is strung painfully on the tension-line between the responsibilities of the storyteller and the responsibilities of the historian.

This statement definitely resonates with me, and is something every author writing a family story should bear in mind.

 

writing family historyPauline Wilson is a writer and family historian who loves learning and research.

She released her debut novel, Conflict at Hanging Rock in July 2022 and her second novel Breaking Free will be released on November 13th 2023.

Pauline writes historical fiction inspired by true stories of her ancestors. Find out more.

 


 

 

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