Friday, October 16, 2015

Should people write biographical fiction?

I've started work on my grandfather's story. I never knew him, as he was born in 1892 and died in the early 1960s, but he lived life to the fullest. As well as serving in both World Wars, he was one of South Australia's champion boxers in the welterweight division, and came from a very large family. All this combined to give him a life of amazing highs and lows, many of which fit into an interesting historical context.

Years ago, my father (his 2nd to youngest son) researched a lot of genealogy about his family, including all the information about his father's early life. He asked me to type it out for him, but Dad's writing is mostly factual statements about what happened, and sometimes it's all around the place. At the time I thought how excellent it would be to read it all in the form of an actual story, but didn't feel up to trying it myself.

Seven years have passed since then, and my dad's remaining brother and sister have passed away, leaving Dad as their father's sole surviving child, and his health is failing too. It made me want to write it even more, but something still made me hesitate for a very long time. I sat down and figured out what it was.

Writing about real people who lived and breathed, especially those who were that close to me, makes me edgy as I'd be sure to misrepresent a lot of what really went on, taking poetic license, putting words in their mouths and making up connecting scenes to join things together. I couldn't help thinking that may not be doing previous generations a favour. Perhaps my efforts would be deplorable in their eyes, but they're dead and can't tell me. Wouldn't that be the ultimate case of a misguided do-gooder, thinking I was doing something great, when I was really doing something cringe-worthy? I didn't want to be that person. Yet the idea still stuck around.

Just over the last week or two, I've read an unrelated book which has encouraged me. The author discussed how God knows each of us better than we know ourselves, which may come across as bizarre since we are the thinkers, observers and formers of our opinions. As we live inside our own heads, groom ourselves and keep a careful eye on how we're presenting ourselves to the outside world, how could anybody possibly know us better?

The answer is, the person who knows the extent of our genealogies knows us far better than we know ourselves. I was intrigued by the scope of what Dad found in his research, yet God knows even more. He's the one who can number the hairs on our heads when we wouldn't have a clue (unless you're totally bald, and then the answer would be zero). Although the author's point was that there is someone even closer than ourselves who loves us accordingly, I got something different and extra from it.

It was a bit silly of me to put off writing this family book until I could do it perfectly, because that could never happen anyway, no matter how much I delved in and dug up. Human, self-kept history is bound to be sketchy and inaccurate in comparison to God's complete bird's-eye view, unfettered by time and space. Even if I was to write a memoir about my teenage years in the eighties, it wouldn't come out on the pages exactly as it happened, although I was there living it.

The bottom line - we might as well give what we've got, if it's intriguing enough to capture our imaginations. With a choice between writing something based on fascinating historical fact, and writing nothing at all, the former may be the best choice, sketchy and inaccurate though it might be. In my case, the information we have recorded is more detailed than I imagined it would be, so I'm going for it.

When you really stop to think about it, books like this are everywhere. Here is a sample from some of my most recent reads to books I read years ago. Most are about really famous people but the same principle applies.

1) Luther and Katharina
Luther and Katharina Jody Hedlund's take on the love affair between Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora.
I've reviewed it here.

2)  Lynn Austin's Biblical fiction. 
Return to Me (The Restoration Chronicles #1) She uses the Biblical records from King, Chronicles and the prophets to to write the events in the form of novels. There is her Chronicles of the Kings series, and more recently, her Restoration series, focusing on the lives of Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah. I've reviewed some here, here and here.

3) Mesu Andrews' Biblical fiction.
In the Shadow of Jezebel (Treasure of His Love) She does the same thing, choosing to focus on the possible stories of women who seemed rather marginalised in the Bible, threshing out in her imagination what might have happened between the lines. I've reviewed some here and here.

4) Nancy Moser's novels about famous women throughout history.
Mozart's Sister (Ladies of History, #1) She's done Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mozart's sister, Nannerl, that I know of.

5) Carol Preston's Australian colonial fiction based on her family history research.
Mary's Guardian (Turning the Tide, #1). These books have encouraged me the most, as her stories provide a really valuable insight into what living in the early days of Australian settlement would have been like. If Carol hadn't delved into her ancestry and written the stories, we'd never know. I've reviewed some here, here and here for a start.

And although I haven't read it yet, this is one I intend to get to very soon, because the thought of it intrigues me.
Henry and Banjo

What do you think about the matter? How would you feel to think that somebody who hasn't even been born yet may choose to write about you 50 or 100 years after you've passed away?


  1. I quite like that kind of fiction, Paula, and I think if you make sure you check things out to see that they're as accurate as possible,it's okay.

    1. Thanks Lynne,
      It will put my untested research skills to the test, which might be good. I enjoy getting my hands on a good one too.