Anyone interested in writing historical fiction inevitably asks themselves the same question to start: Is it okay to write about real historical figures in my book? The simple answer to this question, of course, is “usually.” I know, not as cut-and-dry as you were probably hoping. But rest assured that if you are determined to include real historical figures in your novel then you can certainly make it happen.
When doing this, there are some factors to keep in mind. I have spent the last four years brainstorming, researching and writing a historical fiction novel (and I’m still nowhere near done). On my own personal journey, I have learned that there are a series of important questions you must ask yourself along the way.
Below is a list of those questions that will come in handy when thinking about how to use real historical figures in your fiction. The answers I have gathered from years of my own research, talking with fellow novelists and listening to the advice of some of the best writers in the industry.
1. Is this person still alive?
This is easily the most important question you should ask yourself when writing about real historical figures. There is an assumption that “historical” means “deceased,” but that is not always the case.
If the historical figures you would like to include in your book are still living, the water becomes a little muddy, simply because things like defamation lawsuits and invasion of privacy issues could arise. Apparently living people have a problem with others using their name and likeness without their permission.
However, if the historical figures have already passed away, they are fair game to include in your historical fiction. These legal issues that apply to living people, well, only apply to living people. Writer’s Digest reaffirms this point in a post, stating that the estate of deceased famous people cannot sue for using their loved ones in historical fiction.
That said, if you are going to use a historical figure as the main character of a book, it may still be a good practice to contact his or her family to make them aware and perhaps even gain their blessing for your hard work.
2. Where does this person fit into the story?
If you have written a book before, you understand the massive amount of brainstorming that goes into it. When it comes to historical fiction, all that front-end brainstorming is only amplified.
Before beginning your research, you should have an idea of where this character fits into the story. Are they going to be the main character? An acquaintance to a fictional main character? Simply make an appearance in one scene and never be heard from again? Are all the characters in the book going to be historical, or are some (or most) going to be fictional?
It’s a good idea to iron out this game-plan before you begin. Not only will this make it easier to formulate your plot, but it will also help streamline your research. The type of research that goes into a book that is solely about real historical figures is far different from that of a book that sees historical figures only make cameos.
This isn’t to say that once you get to the research stage your brainstorm won’t be completely re-written (trust me, I’ve been there). You may think you have an idea for how the book will look, only to make an interesting discovery later in the process that flips the plot on its head. That’s okay. Brainstorms evolve; that’s in their nature. But having this foundational outline is key.
3. Have I done my research?
This is the hard part. But it’s also the most important part. Doing thorough research is what makes or breaks historical fiction. It’s what gives a book its authenticity. You could say “John went to the store,” or you could say “John went to J.L. Hudson’s, a majestic brick building towering over Woodward Avenue.” Both could be true, but the second description shows that you are aware of what Detroit was like in the mid-1900’s.
Gather resources from everywhere. Let’s say you want to write a story about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, similar to Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Where do you start your research? Well, it would probably be a good idea to read that King novel, along with watching the Hulu miniseries they made from it.
Your research should come from a wide variety or sources, both primary sources and secondary. If you are curious about the difference between the two, primary sources provide first-hand accounts of people, places, events and time periods, while secondary sources are built from research that others have conducted. So listening to JFK speeches would be primary research, while reading a book written by a historian would be secondary.
Be sure when you are conducting your own research you are being thorough. Track where your information comes from, that way you can quickly reference it again and attribute it correctly if the need arises. You should be reading books, watching videos, gathering newspaper articles, digging up old journals, looking at photographs and even talking directly with people who were involved or who are knowledgeable about the historical figure or event.
Along the way, I have found, as a best practice, to remain as organized as possible so that all of the information you gather can be easily used to strengthen your prose. The last thing you want is for all of your hard work to deter your writing process. When you are ready to write, the research should not get in the way.
4. Have I read enough historical fiction?
Being able to tell a great story without reading great stories is…well, let’s just call it extremely difficult. Before embarking on a task as tall as intertwining a captivating narrative with factual history, it’s a good idea to read some historical fiction books to see how other authors have done it.
Some writers do not like to read books within their genre while working on a new manuscript. This can be for several reasons — it can be distracting, disrupt the voices of your characters or unintentionally alter your own writing style. I understand that. So before you begin writing — while you are still in the research phase — pick up some novels that take place during the same time period as your book or that use the same historical figures or narrative structure.
Here are a few recommendations:
- Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner — if you want to weave real historical figures (and events) into your fictional narrative
- The Plot Against America by Philip Roth — if you want to incorporate real historical figures into an alternate past
- The Paris Wife by Paula McLain — if you want your main character to be a real historical figure