Characters Stranger than Fiction by Maryka Biaggio

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Maryka told me that she enjoys the challenge of starting with actual people and dramatizing their lives and motivations while recreating their emotional world through dialogue and action. With the release of her latest novel, The Point of Vanishing, she reflects on the characters she’s discovered whose lives are stranger than fiction. Over to you, Maryka!

Who hasn’t tossed out the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” after hearing some absurd but true tale? In fact, the saying has turned cliché from overuse. But when it comes to fiction writers, reanimating the lives of real people is a serious matter. And many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on actual persons. Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? 

If we agree that one particular fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it is not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real characters. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances may seem, these people actually lived. Witness the popularity of a spate of novels based on real characters: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her resilience in seeing her and her husband through their strange history; Ariel Lawhon’s I was Anastasia tells the fascinating story of Anna Anderson’s battle to be recognized as Anastasia Romanov; and The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is based on the true story of a young woman given ownership of another human being in the early 1800s.

I specialize in writing historical fiction based on real people. My own recently released novel, The Point of Vanishing, recounts the tale of the gifted writer Barbara Follett, who disappeared without a trace at age 25. My debut novel, Parlor Games, tells the tale of beautiful and cunning May Dugas, who conned her way from America to Shanghai, London, and points in between. I continue to be amazed by the number of readers who tell me that knowing May was a real person made the novel all the more fascinating.  And I expect those who are interested in Barbara Follett’s story will feel the same about The Point of Vanishing.

So I believe readers take a particular delight in the stories about real people. For if some real character could mastermind the most daring plot to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If another could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve? 

According to Italo Calvino, it all began with the first chronicler of the tribe: “The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but . . . in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative.” We humans are meaning-making machines, and it is stories that grease the gears of our turning minds. In its most basic form, story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims that “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.” What better way to explore the possibilities than through actual lived experiences?

Of course, comparing ourselves to others doesn’t happen only in fiction, or even in such other narrative forms as biography or memoir—witness the popularity of polls, those ubiquitous instruments of public opinion and habit. And if there is any doubt about this need to compare, consider what happened when Alfred Kinsey released his highly technical and research-laden 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” Thinking this tome would be of interest only to the scientific community, W.P. Saunders printed just 5,000 copies. Against all expectations, this book so intrigued the public that the publishing house had to keep two presses rolling to meet the demand. Within fifteen weeks of its release, the 800-page volume had shot to near the top of the bestseller list. Of course, the fact that the topic was sexual behavior helped propel sales, but this doesn’t undermine the point. In fact, it confirms a variant—the more taboo or personal the content of the “story,” the more appeal it will hold for our story-hungry minds. 

I don’t expect the urge to compare ourselves to others, to take the measure of people who created their own success—or demise—will ever end. There will always be a demand for novels based on characters stranger than fiction. 

Congratulations on the release of your newest novel, Maryka. And thank you for sharing thoughts on the eagerness readers have for fiction based on true characters. I love novels based on real people and can’t wait to read your latest. Readers can also enjoy my conversation with Maryka about what makes historical fiction tick.

THE POINT OF VANISHING by Maryka Biaggio is based on the true story of author Barbara Follett. On a December night in 1939 Barbara Follett fought with her husband and stormed out of their Boston home never to be heard from again. Now novelist Maryka Biaggio provides a captivating account of Barbara’s enigmatic life—and disappearance.

Barbara had all the makings of promise and success. Early on, her parents recognized her shining intellect and schooled her at home. At age twelve, she published the novel The House Without Windows to much acclaim. When she was fourteen, her charming account of a sailing journey, The Voyage of the Norman D, was released. But when tragedy struck the family, Barbara floundered. Watch the trailer for more!


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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

Eden Waits: A Novel About a Utopian Community

Maryka Biaggio is a professor of psychology turned novelist who specializes in fiction based on real people. In 2013 Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, the true story of a small-town Michigan girl turned world-class con woman. Eden Waits, the fictionalized account of a utopian community in 1890s Michigan, was published by Sunbury Press in 2019. Maryka has been on the blog before talking about what makes historical fiction tick.


Eden Waits is based on the true story of Hiawatha Colony, a utopian community founded in 1894 in Michigan. The experiment raised many questions: Is it possible for a community to sequester itself from the larger society and its laws? What kind of a leader does it take to ably manage internal conflicts and relationships with those on the outside? Can a group of individuals develop an economic system that insulates its members from the hardships of the larger society? And is it possible for a self-contained community to survive on a long-term basis?

In the early 1880s Abraham and Elizabeth Byers sold their farm in Southwest Michigan to homestead acreage in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They invited their kin to join them, and eight families in all proved up a total of 1280 acres—enough to log, hunt, fish, and farm for decades to come. Brothers, sisters, and offspring worked to clear some of the timber-rich land, build cabins, and start gardens and orchards. Some members of the settlement took jobs at the nearby Chicago Lumbering Company to bring in wages for their families. The community was known as the Byers Settlement, and Abraham Byers reigned as its patriarch.

Then the Panic of 1893 hit, ushering in the worst depression the United States had ever experienced. During the four-year depression that ensued, unemployment soared to as high as 25%. Even before the panic struck, many people had grown restless with low wages, poor working conditions, and monetary policies that favored the wealthy. In 1892 discontented workers formed the Populist Party to represent common people—especially farmers—against the entrenched interests of railroad barons, bankers, corporations, and the politicians who catered to their wishes. The Party called for currency reform, public ownership of transportation systems, an eight-hour working day, and a pension system for workers.

Abraham Byers allied himself with the Populist Party and stumped for its candidate for President, James B. Weaver. But Weaver won only 8% of the vote, leaving “third-partiers” deflated and even more discontented with the government.

Abraham Byers refused to let the election results deter his political goals. Several of Byers’ kin worked for the Chicago Lumbering Company, and during the depression the company cut workers’ wages. Abraham railed against the company’s control over its mill workers, lumberjacks, and even independent jobbers. When the workers decided to strike, the company threatened to fire all the workers, squelching their effort. Then they blamed Abraham Byers for stirring up trouble.

That’s when Abraham discovered The Product-Sharing Village, a book by Walter Thomas Mills, a famous orator and fellow third partier. Mills put forth a blueprint for a cooperative village designed to take care of its own. The notion of an economically self-sufficient community intrigued Abraham. He found many of the conditions Mills laid out for such a village already in place at the Byers Settlement: plentiful and rich lands, hard-working people, and equipment for enterprise. Giving the settlement over to a product-sharing village, he thought, was a perfect way to redress the plight of his kin and other workers suffering at the hands of the Chicago Lumbering Company.

Abraham straightaway wrote to Mr. Mills, proclaiming his intention to form a product-sharing village. He invited Mr. Mills to join the endeavor. To his great surprise, Mills consented and moved from his well-appointed home in Chicago to the rustic settlement. Abraham and Mr. Mills persuaded all the settlement members to deed their land to the incorporated entity they named Hiawatha Colony. Their grand experiment was publicized in Populist Party periodicals. People from as far away as Texas flocked to the Colony by train and wagon, bringing all their worldly possessions, including livestock. At its peak, Hiawatha Village attracted nearly 200 members, milled its own lumber, grew some of its own crops, and sold goods manufactured on its grounds.

But Chicago Lumbering Company executives were set against Abraham and the Colony, and they took every opportunity to undermine it. The Colony found itself struggling against not only the Upper Peninsula’s harsh winters and external enemies, but internal strife as well. Abraham was eventually faced with the question: Should he dissolve the Colony and compromise his ideals or should he take over the reins himself and try to salvage the Colony?

Hiawatha Colony, like other utopian experiments, ultimately failed. But there will be more such experiments, and modern-day attempts continue to raise questions: Where is the line between community norms and societal laws? Does the government have a responsibility for people who are members of and perhaps pledge allegiance to the “laws” of separatist communities? What are the differences between cults and communities of choice?

One of the purposes of historical fiction is to remind us of the lessons learned in past eras. But sometimes what we learn is that history repeats itself.

Many thanks, Maryka. As your post suggests, we can draw parallels to today from Hiawatha Colony. Perhaps we can learn from Eden Waits.

Eden Waits by Maryka Biaggio ~~ based on the true story of Michigan’s utopian experiment. In 1893, financial panic imperils the settlement homesteaded by Abraham and Elizabeth Byers. Abraham, a preacher and self-proclaimed man of the people, rails against greed and corruption and launches Hiawatha Colony, a product-sharing community designed to support its members through self-sufficiency. But can this cooperative community withstand internal strife, the harsh wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the antagonism of the outside world? When discord rocks the community, Abraham must choose between dissolving the colony and compromising the ideals that elevated him to its patriarch.

Although numerous utopian communities were formed in the United States in the nineteenth century, there are few accounts of the day-to-day life and challenges faced by them. Abraham and Elizabeth were in their advanced years when they homesteaded acreage in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. What drove them to risk so much to build a community of kin and like-minded idealists? This carefully researched historical novel explores the struggle between ideals and practicality and the collision of political and religious realms. The events bear surprising parallels to today’s climate of polarization, questions about leadership, and concerns over corporate power.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Inside Historical Fiction with Maryka Biaggio

Parlor Games by Maryka BiaggioI met Maryka Biaggio at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. Not only is she an experienced author, but she is also a superb conference organizer with a PhD in Psychology! Maryka specializes in writing historical fiction about real people.

The quote below is prominently featured on her website. It happens to be particularly apt for our conversation.

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.” William Martin

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Historical fiction done well immerses the reader in a different period, a different culture, perhaps even a different part of the world. I know I love the experience of getting utterly lost in a great historical novel. Writers who “get it right” find a way to slip the reader into the stream of a well-told story—as well as an expertly evoked time and place. They take the reader on a trip through time, into the world of people who lived a different sort of life. That’s no easy magic to make, but when it works it’s a dazzling experience for the reader (and, I believe, the writer who produced it).

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Historical fiction is difficult to write. It carries with it all the basic demands of a novel set in contemporary time, including character, plot, pacing, and myriad other matters. But it also requires the writer to research the period, its people, culture, and mores—and to portray those while also telling a compelling human story.

So the rewards are multiplied. Reading historical fiction raises as many questions as any reader could ever care to entertain: How did people manage the daily demands of finding food and shelter before modern times? Who influenced the royal courts of kings and queens—and at what risk? How did people justify persecuting each other during the Crusades and Inquisition? What would life be like if I had been born in the Wild West?

What do you try to highlight in your novel(s) and why?

I write novels about actual people. Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, or notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these peoples’ worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and words they might have spoken. As Historical novelist William Martin says, “The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Many readers find their interest especially piqued by novels based on real persons.

Could it be that we are compelled to compare ourselves to others, and, when those others are real people, that their tales are even more captivating? In its most basic form story is about confronting life’s questions and quandaries. Writer E.A. Durden claims “it is the job of fiction to portray the full spectrum of human possibility, to remind ourselves of everything we are capable of—from exploring the heavens to breaking out of the clink.”

If one fascination stories hold for us is the means of measuring ourselves against others, it’s not at all difficult to understand the attraction of stories based on real historical figures. Unbelievable as their motives may be, far-fetched as their actions and circumstances seem, these people actually lived. We humans are meaning-making machines, and stories based on real people make the most delectable fuel for our story-hungry minds. If these real people could mastermind daring plots to separate a millionaire from his money, what adventures might be in store for any of us? If they could rise from poor beginnings and attain greatness, what might the meekest among us achieve?

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

A particularly tricky part of writing historical fiction is conveying a sense of characters that is true to their times. That is, we cannot expect people who lived during the Middle Ages to declare themselves atheists—not when religion was the center of their world. Still, the writer must foster the reader’s identification with the people in her novel. So, it’s important for the writer to find a balance between portraying the influences on her characters and also revealing their humanity. Thus, I try hard to reveal the backdrop for person’s beliefs so as to make their “psychology” believable.

Readers expect authenticity. They want to trust that the writer has gotten the period and place right. So I try to use props that are unique to or revealing of the time I’m writing about, and I take care to be accurate. If I want to dress a lady for an evening at the opera in 1890, I’d better know what dress was proper for that occasion and what terms were used to describe lady’s gowns then.

I have used a variety of research strategies to capture my characters and their times. The period I write about spans from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries, so I have a broad array of resources at my disposal, including newspapers, novels written at the time, genealogy records, trial records (for those involved in criminal/civil charges), biographies, and nonfiction books about topics addressed in my novels.

I also travel. For instance, I’ve searched the National Archives in Washington, DC, for passport and travel records. In Chicago I studied buildings that were in existence during the period I write about. I arranged a trip to the south of France while I worked on my recently published novel. I paid the requisite fee to enter the exclusive gambling lounge at the Monte Carlo Casino, where I soaked up the ambience of the scene—the beautiful, inviting decor, the serious expressions of the gamblers, and the shuffling of chips—just as my protagonist did during her visits there.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

I believe that depends on the place and period. Again, authenticity is key here. A novel told about a high society woman during the Gilded Age better take note of jewelry and expensive gowns, neither of which would matter to a poor maid of Biblical times. The author should know the period and place well enough to understand what needs to be evoked in order to transport his readers there.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

PARLOR GAMES, published by Doubleday in 2013, is based on the notorious character May Dugas, born in 1869 to a poor family in a small Michigan town. I chose to write about her for a number of reasons: I was fascinated by the Pinkerton Detectives’ description of her as “the most dangerous woman in the world”; she did not shrink from adventure or peril; and I thought a first-person account would both challenge me and, if I succeeded, provide a fascinating glimpse into May’s world.

Apparently this poor girl clawed her way out of poverty by means of beguiling beauty, risk-taking bravado, irresistible charm, and quick wits. And I wondered: Was the real May Dugas a cold-hearted enchantress, an able provider for her poor family, or a free-spirited globetrotter? There was only one way for me to explore this—to write May’s story in first person and make her tell the story and explain her motives. That way, the reader and I could enjoy the journey as we explored her inner life. Seeing the world through the eyes of another is truly one of the most seductive aspects of writing—and reading—historical fiction.

Many thanks, Maryka. A superb discussion of what makes historical fiction unique.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.