Saturday, March 15, 2008

True Lies: Writing Fiction About Real People

Hi Guys,

Here at Killer Fiction we celebrate all kinds of fiction. And today, I want to introduce you to Laura Joh Rowland our guest blogger. Personally, I admire Laura for choosing to write a fictional story about a real person. Call me a coward, for I've found it's easier to even use fictional towns. That way, no one can question my research. So, please help me welcome Laura who was up to a challenge and did an amazing job.

Take it away, Laura.

Creating fictional characters from scratch is no piece of cake. You have to blend together physical, intellectual, and emotional traits, then breathe life into the result. It's an act of magic.

Using real people instead might seem easier. They've created themselves. And if they're famous, they come with readymade biographies. A little research, and you're good to go. Right?


When I set out to write my novel, The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte, I learned that putting real characters into fiction comes with unique challenges. Unless you're writing a fictionalized biography, at some point you will have to depart from the facts of the character's life. You must create a story into which the character can fit.

I did this by inserting a fictional episode into the framework of Charlotte Bronte's history. I chose a time in her life (1848, after Jane Eyre became a scandalous bestseller) and an experience she had (her trip to London with her sister Anne) as a starting point for a great adventure that she must, for various reasons, keep a secret. I incorporated real people from Charlotte's life, including her family and her publisher. I set scenes in her hometown of Haworth, Yorkshire. But the story is a product of my imagination. Charlotte witnesses a murder and becomes embroiled in a hunt for a villain who is plotting the downfall of the British Empire.

These were dangerous waters for me, the author, as well as for Charlotte, the heroine. When you cast a real person in the role of fictional protagonist, you will inevitably have her do things she never did in life. These may be things that she would not have condoned, that seeing her do would have upset her family and friends. You may lay yourself wide open to charges of slander and libel.

Fortunately, in my case, I don't have to worry about lawsuits. Charlotte Bronte is long dead, and she left no descendents. But that doesn't mean there's no one to object if I showed her involved in situations she never actually encountered and taking actions never described in her biography (such as going undercover in the household of Queen Victoria and making love to a dashing spy for the Crown). The image of a historical figure is often based less on fact than on hearsay and misrepresentations. I learned this when I began submitting the manuscript of The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte to publishers.

I collected 30-plus rejections, many due to the discrepancy between how I see Charlotte and how the editors perceive her. I portrayed Charlotte as an adventurous spirit who craves new experiences and passionate romance. Her biographies describe how she traveled far and wide for a woman of her background, dared to write a book, became a national celebrity, and fell passionately in love at least once. Although I took considerable liberties with her character, my version of Charlotte is grounded in emotional if not technical truth.

But the editors who rejected my book said, "That's not how I envision Charlotte," and "I can't picture her outside of Haworth." My search for a publisher was a matter of finding an editor who saw eye to eye with me regarding Charlotte. I was lucky to find that editor in Juliet Grames at Overlook Press.

Now I wait to hear what readers think of The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. I can hardly expect to match everyone's notions of who Charlotte was and what she would or wouldn't have done. But I hope that most readers will think that my rendition of her contains at least a grain of truth.


Christie Craig said...


Your book sounds great. I can't wait to read it.

Thanks again for guest blogging at Killer Fiction.

Crime Scene Christie

Gemma Halliday said...

What an awesome concept! Oh, I totally must read this book. Historical mysteries are some of my favorites, and this one sounds really fun!


Faye Hughes said...

Ooh, count me among the ones who'd like to read your book, Laura! It sounds great.


Leah Hultenschmidt said...

I just read a fantastic review of this in Entertainment Weekly. Congratulations!

Estella said...

Your books inttigues me.

Gemma Halliday said...

Leah - glad to *see* you up and about again! Hope you're feeling better!


photoquest said...

This sounds like a very interesting read. I love getting in on the blogs it's good for new readers like myself to get to know the different authors and what they're writting.

Tori Lennox said...

Your book sounds like a lot of fun!