Writing my latest novel, Across the Deep, was a unique experience. While most writing falls neatly under the categories of either non-fiction or fiction, I was turning true, historical records into a novel form.
As you might imagine, this posed significant challenges. Here are a few things I kept in mind as I turned fact into fiction.
The temptation for a writer working with history is to keep looking for those elusive facts. In fact, it took me a decade to do this. But there came a point where I had to put aside my research and actually write something.
An interesting thing happened when I did: my writing fuelled new questions and sharpened my old questions. Then these new research avenues opened up new possibilities for my writing in a sort of symbiotic spiral. Writing actually helped me research more efficiently.
I had a great advantage while writing Across the Deep in that my family had kept great records including letters, journals, Bible notes, and various anecdotes. Often I had first-hand accounts of exactly what my characters were thinking at a given moment. But many times I had to take bald facts and turn them into a story.
The personal element was missing, and I had to find it. This part works very much like writing straight fiction. I had a character with certain parameters, just as if I had invented him or her on my own. I had to take the situation, look at how this person has responded in the past and how they were going to respond in the future, and imagine their thoughts, feelings, and actions based on this line of continuity. It was like filling in the pieces of a puzzle.
One of the most valuable pieces of advice I got concerning Across the Deep came from agent Steve Laube. When I mentioned I was writing fiction based on true stories, he said not to let the facts get in the way of the story.
What he meant was that the paramount thing was the story. Everything else had to take a back seat—even the facts themselves. So, for example, even though I didn’t know when exactly William McKillican had met John Strachan or the circumstances involved, I did know they were correspondents, and that Strachan even offered William the opportunity to turn Anglican. So I could invent the actual meeting based on that framework.
So, if you’re considering telling that true story, or even writing a fictional tale against a real backdrop, keep these things in mind.
Erin E. M. Hatton won our 2014 Free Publishing Contest in Fiction for Across the Deep. Interested in entering this year’s contest? It opens on March 6th! Like us on Facebook, follow us on “Twitter”: https://twitter.com/wordalivepress, and keep checking back here for more information on the contest!
Erin is the author of Otherworld and Across the Deep, winner of the 2014 Free Publishing Contest for Fiction. She has also authored several short stories and novellas. She graduated from Redeemer University College and lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband Kevin and four children.
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