Historical fiction featuring real people – a debate

On February 20th, author Jeanie Thornton Roberts posted a question: How would you respond to someone questioning your ‘right’ to write about their ancestor?

The responses from fellow authors and readers was diverse and informative. Jeanie kindly gave permission for me to develop a post based on the content. Almost all text below are direct quotes from the Facebook post.

Ignore it – Don’t engage:

  • It’s a long time ago.
  • Ignore it. You’d be surprised how many people are possessive about their ancestors, even when said ancestor died 500 years ago …
  • Dignified silence. Such stuff is not worth acknowledging.
  • You cannot libel or harm the dead. There is nothing a descendent can do about it, so write away. If they want to respond, they can write their own book.
  • This was on social media. Ignore it. Engaging with this person will only fuel their desire for conflict. That sort of thing rarely ends well. 
  • Don’t engage, unless they’ve revealed an important historical inaccuracy
  • Don’t respond, the person is looking to start an argument.
  • No one is “entitled” to only have something positive written about their ancestor

The legal question:

  • There was recently a famous court case in which the descendent sued an author for writing about their ancestor and the court sided with the author. To which someone added: The descendant of Boris Pasternak sued the fiction author who wrote a novel, where Pasternak had a mistress who inspired him to create Lara’s character in Dr. Zhivago.
  • The window for libel is closed in most cases after a certain number of years between 0 and 100.
  • I did my due diligence reading copyright law and found that heirs have few grounds to sue for libel or slander or anything else, especially if they are removed by more than a generation or two and the subject of your work died over 100 years ago

What’s an author supposed to do?

  • With that many generations what are we supposed to do, poll hundreds or thousands of descendants?
  • As long as I had evidence to support what I wrote, I felt confident that I could defend any criticism and not worry about what was said.
  •  A person has thousands if not tens of thousands of descendants after four or five decades, simply because most people had more than two children.

If you engage, do so with caution:

  • If you want to engage, you can act amazed at the discovery and offer a discussion of the incredible life their ancestor lived.
  • But it’s Fiction. This comment elicited a subsequent discussion about accuracy and authenticity and that any historical fiction worth its salt is based on real history and as if the characters could have existed.
  • Write a simple, kind note in which you “hear” the person’s concern and briefly state your motivation in taking up the topic, noting how any historical figure or event is a potential topic for a writer (as evidenced in the voluminous works of historical fiction).
  • I’m going to be a bit more cautious than others. You’ve not told me about the racial /class status of your subject and their descendant. While there is nothing to stop you doing it, I’d be pretty annoyed if (for example) a white evangelical decided to tell the story of my ancestors’ flight from Russia to explain how it’s all gods will … So while the general point is, your novel your business, there are other factors that may or may not be at play.
  • You could write back, say how glad you are that she took the time to read your book. That you took all your information from public record and that as a writer you have artistic licence, but what a pleasure it was to get to “know” their ancestor.
  • I’d be fascinated if a descendant of one of my characters came out of the woodwork. I would certainly try to engage, and get them on side. It would seem to be the civil thing to do. And they might even have some interesting material you can incorporate.
  • In short, if someone objects to my characterization of someone because I’ve made them too flat, or stereotyped them, I want to hear about it. If, on the other hand, I’ve just blasted someone’s carefully constructed fantasy out of the water, or refuted a national fairy tale- good! I consider that I’ve done my job well.
  • Write a polite note that asks for relevant information they might have, but in no way surrenders your right to tell this story, but which also affords them an opportunity to contribute if they want to. They might not. But in the most contentious encounter I’ve had with family members, they were still willing to give me information. I had to make my peace with that.

Public Figures

  • The very fact that they are public figures means that they are public. People who are dead are fair game. And famous people are even more fair game.
  • I am descended from Eleanor of Aquitaine (as are thousands of others). Should I be upset that Sharon Kay Penman wrote two monster novels about her? Or that Kate Hepburn portrayed her in a movie?
  • If the ancestor is a public figure, you have no problem. Ignore and move forward!

Get in touch early

  • I was in touch with the family and they approved my book and had input.

So there we are, many valuable ideas and options on how to proceed. Thanks to everyone who responded to Jeanie Thornton Roberts’s post.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, 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.

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3 Responses

  1. I can’t wait until my trilogy in progress–written but being polished–is published. Other than a few servants and a fictitious aristocratic Milanese family, every single person is real, with their real names, beginning with Napoleon and moving through a significant swathe of the French army. Fortunately, they have all been safely dead for quite some time.

  2. Over the last ten years I have written and published six Canadian historical novels, each of which was inspired by a Canadian woman of some note. Two of these novels, “Grace and the Secret Vault,” and “Grace in Love,” centred on the same woman and follow quite closely the real-life story of the subject, now deceased. I asked for the help and advice of the family member who was her literary executor, and who pointed me toward archival collections of the subject’s papers.

    Two more of my novels are very loosely based on real-life , somewhat famous Canadian women of the past., now deceased. “The Songcatcher and Me”, and my latest, “A Striking Woman,” were much more the creations of my informed imagination than strictly biographical novels, so I gave my central characters different names than those of thee real life women who inspired them, and explained in my introduction that a lot of the story was “informed guesswork.”

    My remaining two historical novels have fictional central characters who encounter some real-life people from the era in which the story is set. These novels are “Votes, Love and War,” which was inspired by research into the lives of two Manitoba feminist/journalists, and “A Girl Should Be,” a stand-alone sequel to “Votes..”

    For more information, please contact my publisher at info@baico.ca

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