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

The Power of Fiction

Today I’ve assembled a group of readers’ perspectives on the power of fiction. In a future post, I’ll include comments from readers who are also authors. Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

Mary Ann who is 58 and has lived in different parts of the world: The power of fiction, in my opinion, is that no matter what kind of day I’m having or what other concerns I may have, I can always pick up a book and if the author does a good job, be whisked away into another person’s world. I can vanish for as long as I care to and know that when I have to return to everyday life, my book friends are still waiting.

Anne from Yorkshire, UK reads more than 350 books a yearWithout question it is escape. I live other lives and experience so many things that are not part of my life and which allow me to escape from my own life –not that my own life is at all difficult.

Adam, a Canadian in his mid-thirties: The greatest power of fiction is to push the boundaries of the real to give the reader a chance to imagine. I suspect that creates real opportunities for empathy. It’s also a great diversion, and a way to portray ideal worlds, or worlds that are broken in specific ways.

Wendy who is from the UK and loves historical fiction: An ability to ‘escape’, if only briefly, from the day to day trials and tribulations. In my own case, the past five years have been the most stressful of my life. The hours I spent sitting by my husband’s bedside and then later when I had to come to terms with being alone after 43 years of marriage were only just bearable because I could lose myself in a book. In the case of my love of historical fiction – I am within travelling distance of so many wonderful historical sites and visiting them with my grandchildren is a great source of interest and delight.


Jane who is 75 and lives in Mexico: I think fiction allows us to experience what we have not personally lived, builds understanding, empathy, historical perspective,  gives us pleasure and defeats loneliness.

Paul who is 48 and lives in Dorset: Fiction has the ability to tell the world of significant moments and peoples lives.

Joanne who lives in Essex, UK: Fiction allows the reader to travel to distant places, other time periods, imaginary worlds and all without leaving their own home. It can take your mind off your own troubles, make you laugh, cry and more.

Sarah who lives in California and has been in the tech industry as well as holding an MLIS: Fiction can take more risks because it’s not hinged on real world consequences or rules.

Mary, a 17-year-old from Australia: The power to forgot Earthly struggles once in a while and just read.

Pat who lives in the US and is addicted to books: A place to travel to other countries, eras, worlds (I do read some sci-fi), a way to relax, I love history and books take me back in time.

Escape … empathy … travel … risk … significant moments … defeats loneliness … builds understanding … bearing life’s tribulations. Now that’s powerful!


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

Why we read

A few months ago, my mother clipped an article out of the paper for me with the compelling title Why we (still) read. The author was Robert Fulford, a long-time and well known Canadian journalist.

Fullford discusses the benefits of reading and the way “books work on us”. Several bits stood out for me. The first is a quote taken from Mark Kingwell, a professor of philosophy: reading books we construct our unique selves: “There is no self without reading.” Without the inner discourse that reading makes possible, self hardly exists.

Keith Oatley, emeritus professor at the University of Toronto has written Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oatley’s research

..convinces him that reading at its best enhances the quality of empathy.

Fullford goes on to say:

Literature deepens life by making us compare our own inner life with the lives we read on the page.

And his conclusion?

We often hear that the busy interconnected lives of the 21st century have robbed us of stillness and solitude, the traditional setting for serious thought. One solution to this problem lies in literature. Books that demand and repay close attention can create a private space around the reader. It’s a kind of solitude without loneliness.

Wonderful reasons to read and equally wonderful reasons to write.