Weaving Real Events into Fiction

Macondo well gushes oil after Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns and falls
Macondo well gushes oil after Deepwater Horizon oil rig burns and falls

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

When I began the early scribbles for what eventually became Trails in the Sand, I was writing about current events. BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill still led the headlines as oil gushed unabated into the Gulf of Mexico. Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion made headlines in few months after the explosion when investigators finally entered the mind shaft after the fumes subsided. The CEOs of both BP and Massey continued in their positions, but only for a few months longer.

I used both events in my novel as the main characters are connected to both disasters.

By the time, I published Trails in the Sand in January 2013, the horror of both events faded from the public consciousness as the media turned to more pressing issues, such as the demise of yet another pop idol with little talent, except a beautiful face and body.

BP plays its commercials extolling the beauty of the Gulf beaches it nearly destroyed forever because of their negligence in following safety procedures. Massey Energy changed names, and the face of the company, Don Blankenship, faded into obscurity except for his website supporting certain political entities.

So my novel went from the category of current events to historical fiction in less than three years.

Even though I used real events in the novel, my characters are figments of my imagination. I used actual news accounts and placed my fictional characters into the scenes. It’s reminiscent of the movie Forest Gump, except our dear Forest goes to the top and interacts with very real presidents during very real events. My characters do more mundane things.

Some authors use actual events in history with real people. They invent conversations, emotions, and action within the context of the history. Paula McLain did that very well in The Paris Wife, a novel about Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley. Using Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, McLain creates conversations and events between the characters. She read Hadley’s letters to Ernest to find the woman’s voice. “I invented what I couldn’t know,” McLain said.

Another novel that skillfully invents the lives of real characters and real historical events is Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies. It takes place in the Dominican Republic during the rule of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. Four sisters – the Butterflies – are the main characters of the novel and the real Butterflies during that violent time. On November 25, 1960, three of the sisters are found dead next to their jeep. The other sister, Dede, remained at home. Alverez tells the story from the viewpoint of all four sisters capturing their voice and personality through very adept storytelling.

Even though authors may choose different ways to include historical events within the confines of a story, some things remain constant.

  • Research – If you decide to include real historical events or real places within your fiction, accuracy is crucial. In Trails in the Sand, I used real news releases, news articles and reports, and books on the events. For the mine explosion, I added a fictional miner, but I kept to the real details of lawsuits and monetary settlements offered by the company to the victims’ families based on news reports. McLean used the Hemingways’ real accounts of their lives together in Paris. Her descriptions of Paris in the 1920s is historically correct.
  • Always Avoid Libeling a Real Person – There’s a standard for libel, which includes making defamatory statements of fact that are false. If you decide to use real people in your fiction, use common sense and only write what you can prove. For instance, if I quoted a real person in Trails in the Sand, the quote came from an interview using that person’s real words. My best advice to you, if writing about a real person and making them a character in a novel, is not to defame them and stick to actual historical accounts. In addition, make sure you publish a disclaimer at the front of your book. Here’s a sample used by many authors and publishers:

This is a work of fiction. The characters, events, and dialogues portrayed in this book are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.

  • Keep track of current events – As authors, we never know when a story in the newspaper might end up in a book. If something tickles your fancy, bookmark it, save a copy of the article, and/or scribble some notes about it. Soon it will be history and might be stranger and wilder than anything you could ever imagine. Something I read years ago has stuck with me. A man in Florida, shot his pit bull when the dog showed signs of homosexuality. His neighbors reported the gunshots, and the man claimed he couldn’t stand to have a “gay dog” on his property. I’ve weaved that into my next novel – I just knew it would come in handy one day.

Have you ever used real events in a novel? Do you like reading novels that do?


5 responses to “Weaving Real Events into Fiction”

  1. No, I’ve never done it, but I do enjoy when someone else does. It feels relatable and I love wondering…did those people really exist?

    Oh, and I bought A Moveable Feast this weekend. So excited to read it! Thank you for the recommendation!


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