Putting Words in their Mouths – Writing historical fiction based on real lives

At the Springs, Mount Wellington c.1880

Last month I was invited by the writer, Jean M Roberts to contribute a post about my latest novel to her blog, The Book’s Delight. My post looks at the challenges I faced trying to write accurately and honestly about the characters of my novel and not treat them as chess pieces to be moved around the board in service of what I thought would be a good story.

It is said that all we owe the dead is the truth. But when we write historical fiction how do we do this, especially when we attempt to imagine the lives of those who left only faint traces in the records.
My latest novel, Cold Blows the Wind, is based on a period in the lives of my great-great-grandparents, Sarah Ellen Thompson and Henry Watkins Woods, Ellen and Harry. It is set in Hobart Town, Tasmania between the years 1878 and 1885 and grew out of my genealogical research.
Both Ellen and Harry were the children of people transported to Australia from the British Isles. Their parents were not among those who made good and went on to live of comfort. They were what is described today as the working poor… Continue reading

Jean M Roberts writes historical fiction. Her latest book is The Angel of Goliad, a gripping time slip mystery set during the Texas revolution in 1836. As J M Roberts, she also write cozy murder mysteries. You can read more about Jean’s novels at The Book’s Delight.

6 thoughts on “Putting Words in their Mouths – Writing historical fiction based on real lives

  1. I had to do the same thing when writing some family history. I knew some basics, but there were things/ times uncovered by the stories I had heard, and nobody who knew could be interviewed anymore – most have died already, and the only one who might have known (because he had lived to meet his grandparents) is too old and with the memory-affecting diseases of old age.
    I had to fill in the gaps too, by research and asking myself how and why for several times… The great-grandchildren liked my stories!

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  2. I suppose that is the issue with historical novels for me; that they are written through the lense of another age and thereby lose the authenticity that they try to portray. Possibly my loss.
    I remember the account you gave of your family in an earlier blog – based on the information you had – being a compelling read. The idea of a deported man then being further deported from the place he was deported to, still makes me smile. Real Flann O’Brien.

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    • I understand your reservations but, to a degree, even non-fiction is written through the lens of the present. Things that would have been glossed over 100 years ago will now be seen to detract from a person’s achievements.
      It does go further in historical fiction as readers want to be able to relate to a character in a way that’s not expected in non-fiction and so there’s a constraint upon writers to make their characters acceptable to the present. If your characters are fictional, you can do what you want provided you explain it in terms of the period. Biographical fiction is another thing, though.
      Readers read through a 21st century lens too which affects the way they judge even the most meticulous and careful books. A bit like the ‘review’ of Pride & Prejudice I read recently which marked the book down for its ‘old- timey’ language!
      Regarding my forebears, I think that was my ggg-grandfather Henry Woods. I have an even better one in my gg-grandfather William Reader, a private in the 96th regiment of Foot on garrison duty in Van Dieman’s Land. In 1845, along with a mate and under the influence, he stole from the clothes line of a house a cap, three pairs of stockings and some lace. Both were sentenced to transportation beyond the seas for seven years yet they served out their time in VDL.

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      • With non-fiction reference needs to go back to contemporary documentation etc, though I suppose interpretation can still muddy the waters.Putting words into the mouths of historical characters is just a step too far for me. When the characters themselves are also fictional then I am a bit more comfortable.
        As for your family, sounds like you have a lot of skeletons rattling around there. It also seems that Tasmania really was the end of the line.

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        • Yes, I agree references make all the difference. With non-fiction you can talk about ambiguities in records but with fiction you have to decide on one and stick with it – no footnotes. Many people will enjoy a historical novel then move on the the non-fiction on the topic. I know lots of people who don’t agree with me, but we are writers of fiction/entertainment, we are not historians though we may be good historical researchers.
          For readers it is a matter of what they prefer. Not every book is for everybody. My mother had no patience with fiction and stuck to biographies but Dad loved a good historical novel which seemed to be more escapist back then – the good generally won.
          Lots and lots of skeletons, mostly on Dad’s side. He was a Tasmanian. About 10 years ago the statistics were that 20% of mainlanders had convict ancestors compared to 60% of Tasmanians. It is a beautiful place to visit.

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