9 Tips on Writing Biographical Fiction by Gill Paul

Gill Paul and I connected when I was moderating a panel on fiction written about the Kennedy family. Her novel, Jackie and Maria, is a fascinating story about Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas and their relationships with Aristotle Onassis – highly recommended!

Gill specializes in relatively recent history, mostly 20th century, and enjoys re-evaluating real historical characters and trying to get inside their heads.

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Biographical fiction was a talking point at the 2021 Historical Novel Society conference, and I think it’s definitely having ‘a moment’. Of course, authors have been writing novels about real people for ages. Robert Graves and Thomas Mann were doing it back in the 1930s.

For me, Paula McLain opened new doors with The Paris Wife, her 2011 novel about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, by writing in first person from the point of view of a real 20th-century woman. We don’t know for sure what Hadley was thinking and feeling during her marriage, but Paula painted a moving and emotionally plausible picture. I’ve written nine biographical novels since then, inspired by her example, and here’s what I’ve learned.

There are innumerable ways of writing biographical fiction. Paula McLain used first person chronological, but close third or multiple povs can work, as can dual narratives, flashbacks, and even telling the story backwards. My personal preference is close third person with at least two different points of view. You can include real people in bit parts alongside fictional main characters, and a common trope is to tell the story of a famous person through the eyes of their less-famous friend. Almost any structure can work, from whodunit to ‘boy meets girl’, depending on your subject.

It’s harder if your subject is well knownIn my novel Jackie and Maria, I wrote about two iconic women, Jackie Kennedy and Maria Callas, who’ve been the subjects of at least a dozen biographies apiece. Then in my next novel, The Collector’s Daughter, I imagined the life of Lady Evelyn Herbert, a woman about whom not so much is known. I enjoyed writing both but on balance I think it’s easier where less is known, because you have more wiggle room and readers don’t come to the story with pre-conceived ideas.

Unlike non-fiction biographies, you don’t need to address a subject’s whole life. It’s easier to impose a neat narrative structure if you choose to describe one event, or a strictly limited period of time. You have to be ruthless in cutting characters and events that aren’t relative to your story arc, no matter how compelling they might be. Selection is a critical part of the process of novelization.

Should you stick to the facts or can you fictionalize? This is an individual choice. I tend to stick to the facts where they are known, and try to shine a light into the gaps between the facts to reveal what it might have been like to be that person in those circumstances. In The Collector’s Daughter, I wondered how Lady Evelyn Herbert’s life was shaped, for better or worse, by her part in the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. I always start out with a question I want to answer, one that non-fiction biographies haven’t cleared up to my satisfaction.

Do you need an author’s note? If I move the date of an event to fit my story arc, or invent a scene, I always ‘confess’ at the end because I don’t want to get messages from readers telling me I’ve got it wrong. I don’t think it’s essential for every author though. Where there is a big leap of fiction – like me saving the Romanov grand duchesses in The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter – then it’s clearly not the gospel truth. In fact, none of it is strictly ‘true’: biographical novelists make up dialogue and thoughts for their subjects that no one could possibly have known. 

Is there anyone you shouldn’t write about? I haven’t yet written a novel that focuses on someone who is still alive because I’m wary of the libel laws. Curtis Sittenfeld has done it with Rodham, and her earlier novel The American Wife, which was based on Laura Bush. I’m sure the lawyers looked at both of these cases and decided the words “A Novel” on the cover protected them. You can’t libel the dead, so that’s a safer bet, but you can breach their copyright, so be careful about quoting directly from letters and other writing till they have been gone more than seventy years. Otherwise, you can write about anyone you want, from Hitler to Jesus.

• Do you have to like your subject? I would never write a novel about someone I couldn’t empathize with, but this is a personal call. It’s perfectly valid to write a critical biographical novel. Non-fiction biographies are often critical, movies and television series can be critical, so I don’t see why biographical novelists shouldn’t criticise their subjects. It’s fiction! You can say that Abraham Lincoln was a vampire – I’m sure some have. You can say that Eleanor Roosevelt smoked crack, although plausibility might be a problem.

Should you worry what descendants might think of your portrayal? Should you contact them? Once again, this is your call. Personally, I think having the family breathing down my neck would curtail my creativity. Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s daughter Caroline is alive but I don’t flatter myself that she will have read Jackie and Maria. If by any chance she does, I hope she won’t mind my portrayal. I’m not claiming to have captured the ‘real woman’. I’ve painted a picture that to me feels genuine and sympathetic, but everyone who knew Jackie will have had a slightly different view of her. There is no absolute truth about anyone.

Why do we read biographical novels? History has all the best stories, some of them so extraordinary that readers wouldn’t accept them if you made them up. Biographical novels can bring fresh and engaging insights for readers and they’re fun to write: it’s the only way to get inside the head of anyone who is not you. But for me, the main goal is not truth. My goal is to write an entertaining novel on a subject that people want to read about – that, and not to get sued.

Congratulations to Gill Paul whose newest novel The Collector’s Daughter was published by Morrow on September 7th. And many thanks for sharing your insights on biographical fiction – I might just have to try my hand at this approach to historical fiction 🙂

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul ~~ Lady Evelyn Herbert was the daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, brought up in stunning Highclere Castle. Popular and pretty, she seemed destined for a prestigious marriage, but she had other ideas. Instead, she left behind the world of society balls and chaperones to travel to the Egyptian desert, where she hoped to become a lady archaeologist, working alongside her father and Howard Carter in the hunt for an undisturbed tomb.

In November 1922, their dreams came true when they discovered the burial place of Tutankhamun, packed full of gold and unimaginable riches, and she was the first person to crawl inside for three thousand years. She called it the “greatest moment” of her life—but soon afterwards everything changed, with a string of tragedies that left her world a darker, sadder place.

Newspapers claimed it was “the curse of Tutankhamun,” but Howard Carter said no rational person would entertain such nonsense. Yet fifty years later, when an Egyptian academic came asking questions about what really happened in the tomb, it unleashed a new chain of events that seemed to threaten the happiness Eve had finally found.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

4 thoughts on “9 Tips on Writing Biographical Fiction by Gill Paul”

  1. Thank you! Gill Paul. You’ve answered many of the questions rolling around in my head as I begin my novel based on one famous, or infamous, incident from eighty years ago. While there were several theories about it, I want to tell the story from the character around whom these theories abound. I want to have her answer the question, “what really happened” as an older woman, and the answer is basically none of the theories. My biggest question was about using the actual person in a very fictional manner. Thank you for helping me clarify that problem. I’ve read The Silent Wife and Jackie and Maria and recommend your writing to many. Good luck on the new book. I’ll look for it.
    Julia Faye Smith

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