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Could do with some advice

(14 Posts)
kohl Thu 20-Apr-17 18:25:11

I really could do with your thoughts!

I'm halfway through a novel that fictionalises a group of real people's lives. They are all dead now, as are most of their children, but their grandchildren are alive. These people range from very famous, to almost unknown.

There's hardly any material extant on my main character - she only crops up incidentally in other people's biographies, and there's two voice recordings. But there is stacks and stacks about her environment/some of the other characters.

The novel is effectively split into 3 time periods, the events of the first are completely invented, the events of the second are partially invented though based on a real events, and the third is a series of events that probably happened but not in the time frame and also the main event is very much fiction.

I am currently struggling with the ethics of all this! They were real people, but the story has got hold of me & I feel it's worth telling because they are really compelling characters and I'm hoping that the story will explore wider and more universal themes...but I can't help but feel a bit....uncomfortable with using real people in this way....

Any advice or thoughts would be so appreciated to help me make sense of it!

histinyhandsarefrozen Fri 21-Apr-17 13:22:37

This is what my novel is like!

And yes, I do struggle with it, and the fear that I will be 'found out' or told 'you're so wrong, my great auntie was nothing like that!!' as well!

What I tell myself is - this is not a factual book and I'm not presenting it as such - if its a gateway to finding out more about these peoples lives then that's wonderful: if it works as a piece on its own, that's wonderful too.

I also sooth myself by looking at other books that do similar things - books by Paula Mclain - they're great, Annabell Abbs -(haven't read it yet but will do and er. Wolf Hall. smile

Diamonddealeroncemore Fri 21-Apr-17 15:33:09

I have an idea for a novel (it will be a love story) about somebody who was real and who probably has great-great ancestors living. But there are other novels about this person and the more famous half of the family so to be honest I've never considered that someone might come out of the woodwork and say 'that never happened'. It will be obvious that I've made up a chunk of their life that wasn't chronicled!

Now....I've just got to write the book!

nixworld Fri 21-Apr-17 16:18:19

If it helps, you can't libel the dead. So you won't be in any legal trouble- but ethically it is a bit different!

histinyhandsarefrozen Fri 21-Apr-17 16:29:20

Also, 'The Girls' by Emma Kleine, last Summer's (v.good) best-seller - about a member of the Charles Manson cult.

Plough on, op.

ActivityGrrl Fri 21-Apr-17 16:57:35

As other posters have said, you can probably just carry on without fear of any issue, but I would keep in mind that if your writing casts a real person in a light that is negative, or there's a chance people won't realise that your writing is fictional, then relatives and other people may have grounds to complain.

If you're really worried, I dare say you could tweak the names etc and make it a story about a family who take the place that the real family held, like how some books about the Romanov family have starred a different, fictional tsar of Russia who just so happened to live the same life.

Should be ok though!

kohl Sat 22-Apr-17 21:56:18

Thanks so much for all your advice-I really appreciate it. I guess my worry is that I won't do my main character justice, but ultimately she's no longer her in my narrative, but instead has become my version of her-with responsibilities to the plot/structure/themes of the book that bears little relation to who she may have truly been in life.

The added complication is that one of the strands of the story is around what responsibility writers/artists have to real people that they use in their work...

I have thought of fictionalising it, but the whole set up is so identifiable (the Bloomsbury set) that it feels more dishonest to mask their identities.

Anyway, still have over half the novel to write-so none of this is an immediate problem, but thank you for all your reassurance!

histinyhandsarefrozen Sun 23-Apr-17 08:05:28

I had a feeling it was about the Bloomsbury set. There can never be enough about the Bloomsbury set I reckon!

As for not doing the main character justice, I wouldn't worry too much - readers will understand they are reading one writer's take on a person - some will like her, some won't...

The added complication is that one of the strands of the story is around what responsibility writers/artists have to real people that they use in their work... That's a good thing. You can write about this in your preface - writers note at the back.

I'm now writing something about two real life characters, one of whom has been written about quite a lot before - mostly in another country - and um making them friends. Written down like that, it sounds awkward - but it seems to work at the moment. I'm a big believer in 'writing what you care about' - and it sounds like you care about those characters and issues very much...

OlennasWimple Mon 24-Apr-17 17:39:00

Interestingly I am grappling with a similar ethical issue right now (and came onto this board to start a thread about it!)

I have found a story that has everything: passion, betrayal, triumph, repression, history, strong characters, vibrant setting, intrigue... You name it, it's in there. I think I could do the story justice, and it's a story that deserves to be told and known more widely. The main characters are a footnote in history (not quite Guildenstern and Rosenkrantz bit-part players, but still very much to the side and not a lot is known about them).

But... I worry about cultural appropriation. It's a story about slavery. I am not black, I have no cultural, ancestral or any other links to the experience of African slaves, and am concerned that I would be causing offence if I decided to write this story as it's arguably not "mine" to tell.

What do others think?

sunshinesupermum Mon 24-Apr-17 17:43:28

Annabel Abbs succeeded very well with The Joyce Girl - a novel based on the imagined life of James Joyce's daughter based on just a small amount of actual evidence/contemporary writings.

Seachangeshell Mon 24-Apr-17 18:10:52

olenna. I'm afraid I think you might be right.

Seachangeshell Mon 24-Apr-17 18:11:34

Many people would find that offensive, I mean

histinyhandsarefrozen Tue 25-Apr-17 09:01:41

That's tricky, Oleannas, and as we know its quite a controversial area at the moment -

www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/15/we-need-to-talk-about-cultural-appropriation-why-lionel-shrivers-speech-touched-a-nerve

If I were you, I'd probably take the cop-out option - I'd frame it with a narrator say, a young white woman or something who is examining and responding passionately to the story too - gawd - I can only think of 'Wuthering Heights' as an example right now, but hopefully you know what I mean.

kohl Tue 25-Apr-17 11:30:34

Oleanna-I think writing that story brings real difficulties-there is a great post here readdiversebooks.com/white-authors-fill-your-stories-with-people-of-color-but-dont-make-them-your-protagonists/
about this issue which you might find helpful-esp the conversation on the comments.

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