Telling true stories

It’s my writing group this afternoon, and following on from last month’s get-together, when we discussed creative non-fiction, which we all found fascinating, I’m moving on to using true stories in fiction… which I hope is different and has different things to think about.

This is what I’m going to give the class:

Telling real stories fictionally

  • Decide what part of the real story you want to use – is it the skeleton of the plot. Is it the characters, is it a real setting you want to use as scenery (the most straightforward!!) is it a situation or event or series of event…
  • Decide on the disguise –
    • if it’s just the bones of something real, there are all sorts of ways you can disguise what inspired you, changing characters, locations, sequence of events
    • if it’s the story of a person, change their details – name (obviously!) gender, age, character (unless the story is dependent on the character – in which case you can change other aspects of them) appearance (of course! But think about ethnicity, religion etc as well) their situation, class, family, background, work, fashion/clothes and so on
    • if it’s a personal story decide whether you are featuring in it – this might make it more difficult to change personal details of other ‘characters’; if you are you! You can, however, change yourself – as in the point above
    • change the time/date/era – bring a Victorian story into the present, change the swinging 60’s to the glam-rock 80’s, change the war in a war story, put the present back into the 90’s; summer to winter, spring and beginnings change to autumn and endings; a CND protest can be an anti-something else demonstration
    • change the location from anywhere to anywhere – even the effects climate and temperature might have on events can be changed, danger from flooding could change to danger from avalanches, trapped by flood water could be trapped by snow
    • decide on the tone or ‘voice’ of what you are writing; is it patently a disguised memoir, is it autobiographical and you just want to be discrete about other ‘characters’; is it seemingly a piece of fiction, is it a ‘maybe true, maybe not you decide’ piece of writing; is it just an episode in something else – a character/incident in a novel you are writing?


Here are some thoughts from Writers’ Digest, and a link to where you can read the article

  • Be objective about what you already know
  • Use secondary sources wisely
  • Be true to your story
  • Always be believable

Here is something I wrote a while ago about creative nonfiction:

… and here is an article by my friend Richard Kefford:

… and here is a link to my use of a few true stories in my novels… although I have to say, anything true I’ve ‘used’ has been very innocuous, and none of my characters are based on real people in any way at all! :


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