Writing a family story

When it comes to choosing what to write about, we often look to topics that we are familiar with; that inspire us; or are close to our hearts or values.

It is no wonder then, that many writers look to their families for ideas and inspiration; whether it’s in relation to a conflict, a circumstance or an interesting time in history. Families are also great to draw upon for detailed and interesting character traits.

When I looked to my father’s family for inspiration for my novel Port of No Return and its soon-to-be-released sequel Wanderers No More, I started by writing a true memoir, featuring real names and events to the best of my reporting and recording ability. It was challenging to honour their memories with sensitivity and to stay truthful. I had to rely on stories told, as remembered, and tried to support them with historical record and facts.

I found that writing a true family story, while valuable, was limiting in terms of plot and description. The truth dictates what happens and there is not the freedom to go outside of it. And I felt shackled by emotional ties to family members. In the back of my mind, I was not wanting to upset them by writing something less than flattering or shining a light on their flaws. I knew they wouldn’t want people outside of family to know certain facts; but without recording them, the account would not be complete or true. It was also a struggle to get inside their heads and write thoughts and dialogues, which I mostly had to assume took place.

My desire to have readers outside of family and to create a story that people would want to read, meant embracing fiction.

I went back to the drawing board and, using the family memoir as a backbone, started to rewrite it, fleshing it out with colour, tension and drama; shifting the story from biographical accounts to fictional ones.

With my imagination fully engaged, I could get inside my characters and breathe life into them. I no longer was left wondering ‘would they have said that?’, but simply could determine that they would say that. Although, I had changed the names of the characters and they had essentially become fictional, many of their experiences were still drawn from true events and I still treated them with sensitivity… these characters were inspired by real people, people I loved, and my treatment of them was respectful. But I also could create fully fictional characters – and I did, allowing them to lead the plot and add to the drama, without upsetting anyone.

Also, writing fiction meant I could capture fascinating historical events that my father’s family had not experienced personally, but were known to have happened to others close to them. These stories, outside of them, now became part of their journey, which meant I was telling the historical story that I felt needed and deserved to be told.

Such creative freedom was intoxicating and, with much of the research already done, the story quickly came to life.

True stories are inspiring. Readers love them.

Fictional stories inspired by true stories are wonderful to write, and readers love them too.

If you have a family story or know of a true story that you want to tell, write it, then ask yourself, what if I could change the names and string the events together using conflict and adding more characters and drama?

What if there were other events happening at that time that you could draw in and expand upon? Think of what more your characters could do and say if not bound by truth but dictated by your imagination?

If you love to create, then allow true stories to be your muse and have fun. Such fictional stories help to uphold history and are heartfelt… offering readers much to learn, feel and take away.

There is a place for family stories in historical fiction – it can be a way to help get your family’s experiences and memories out there into the hands of many more readers.