All novelists write from life. Even if they invent characters and places and situations, their stories will be grounded in emotional realities sprung from real experiences. It’s not always easy to mix the imagined with the actual, however. Whether in historical fiction or the memoir/novel hybrid known as a “novel based on true events,” factual encounters can challenge the writer in predictable ways that raise warning flags for an editor.
While the following list holds cautionary tidbits applicable to any novelist, if your novel makes use of true events, you’d be wise to consider how to sidestep these pitfalls from the start.
• Failing to characterize a protagonist based on yourself. Especially when writing in first person, many writers simply forget to apply characterization techniques to a narrator, even if s/he is also the protagonist. Instead they adopt an approach to point of view as “the view through my eyes,” rather than using the technique to reveal your protagonist's character by what she says and does.
• Depending upon vicarious interest rather than build an inevitable story based on character goals and their relevant complication. It is so tempting, when something major befalls us, to simply drag others through the muck and mire of our trauma. Story should have a higher goal. Literature beguiles because of its structure and meaning, not its chaos.
• Populating the story with actual people rather than orchestrating a set of characters that can best evoke the conflicting perspectives that will bring the story to life. In fiction, characters aren’t really people—they are different ways of viewing a situation. Your refusal to accept the cast fate handed you is a step toward fiction, where it will require effort to come up with the right mix.
• Creating a bard’s song rather than a symphony. Singing about "what happened," even with a lovely voice, is never as powerful as making use of all that literature can bring to bear on a tale—a full orchestration of layered imagery and craft that begs the reader’s involvement and brings her along for the ride. This interconnection between writer and reader is what raises story to an art form.
• Plotting with the coincidental, the accidental, or a “near miss.” Life may work that way, but the reader knows story doesn’t. This is what’s so beautiful and healing about story: things happen for a reason, or else characters frame it out that way in retrospect, and in the end it all adds up. The reader gets frustrated with near misses because we know that people only change when extreme pressures come to bear on them—not when things almost happen. While we understandably avoid certain conflicts in real life, readers want them on the pages of our stories.
• Limiting dialogue to what was said. Dialogue is a powerful tool that can further story, deepen characterization, and deliver subtext. Actual conversation may provide a record but lacks craft, so subtext is underdeveloped.
• Refusing to align true events within an effective story arc. Even memoirists must artfully pick and choose the elements that will create a “natural” story progression. Only those true events that complicate the protagonist's goal, while also tying in to the book's premise, will feel relevant.
• Constraining overall imagination. You’ll know this is a problem the first time an editor or advance reader suggests a story change and you are tempted to reply, “But that’s not how it happened!” If you choose to embrace fiction, none of it ever really happened. That doesn’t mean your story isn’t “true,” it just means that you are approaching the emotional truth through story instead of fact-mongering.
If the suggestion that you change true events in order to improve your story raises your hackles, take heed. You may have to decide whether relating thinly veiled facts should be your primary concern. Re-entering the project as a fully imagined story may give it more power—and, ironically, the potential to convey more truth.