Writing Fiction Based on Fact, or ‘How to Make Life Difficult for Yourself’

July 17, 2016 | By | 3 Replies More

214B8446In December 1836, a bricklayer found a torso resting in a pool of frozen blood beneath a paving stone on the Edgware Road, London. Over the next few months, the remaining body pieces were found, and in May 1837 two people were tried: James Greenacre was convicted of murdering Hannah Brown; his lover, Sarah Gale, was convicted of aiding and abetting him.

The ‘Edgeware Road Murder’, as it became known, attracted great attention at the time due to the gory nature of the crime and the fact that a woman had apparently been involved. During the hearings in the magistrates’ court and at the Old Bailey, Sarah Gale remained silent. She gave only a short statement, read by her barrister, saying that she had not been in Camberwell at the time of the murder. That was what gripped me when I first read about the case: why, when faced with the death sentence, did Sarah Gale fail to fully defend herself? She had not only her own life to consider, but that of another – her four-year-old son, George. So what had really happened?

Several years later, Sarah Gale’s story has become a novel – The Unseeing. I’ve followed a very scenic and circuitous route to get here, but I think I’ve learnt something along the way. I hope that what follows will help provide some shortcuts for those considering writing fiction based on fact.

  1. Know that you are making things difficult for yourself. There are very good reasons for writing a novel based on a real story, not least the fact that there is definitely a market for such works. However, writing ‘fiction based on fact’ throws up particular challenges. It is easy, particularly as a novice writer, to feel hamstrung by the truth, or to be diverted into doing reams of unnecessary research, such that you never actually finish the darn book. I initially thought that writing a novel based on a real case would somehow be easier because I already had the outline of the story. But, as discussed below, the case is not the story. Far from it.
  1. Set realistic targets for yourself at the outset of the project. I began with some vague notion that I would abide by the premise that Atwood set herself for Alias Grace, namely that, ‘When there was a solid fact, I could not alter it.’ That may well be why I ended up with a story that just wasn’t surprising or twisty enough to satisfy readers of the crime genre. It required my literary agent to beat me about the head for some time before I was willing to relinquish ‘the facts’ and accept that, in order for my novel to be saleable, it had to be more surprising. That is part of the reason that The Unseeing plays with the idea of truth and what different people believe the truth to be. I should have established at the outset a clear set of rules for myself – a set of rules that were realistic for a debut writer, rather than a Booker-winning literary giant.
  1. Work out what to research, and know when to stop. I spent over a year researching the murder, Sarah Gale, London and criminal justice in the 19th century, and while a fraction of that research has made it into the book, the vast majority of it is still sitting in my research folder or the recesses of my mind. In retrospect, I should have mapped out the plot and deduced from that which questions I needed to answer in order to write the book. For my second novel, I’m following a four-layer process: initial broad research, drafting a plot structure to work out specific questions, writing first draft, filling in the blanks. Hopefully it will be more efficient.
  1. Recognise that the history is not the story. It would have saved me months had I realised early on that what was really important was my main characters’ arcs: the journey that Sarah Gale and Edmund Fleetwood take over the course of the novel. It sounds obvious, but mistakenly (and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I’m also a solicitor) I thought that what really mattered was the case itself: the evidence. But this is fiction. People are reading it for the story, not for the facts. If they want facts, they can head for the non-fiction section.

TheUnseeing_royal_hb_frontUltimately, it is, I think, about accepting that as writer of historical fiction you are not a historian or biographer, but a creator blending together research and imaginings to provide the reader with a different kind of truth – a wider sense of what people’s lives might have been like in a particular era: to fear, to love, to escape, to survive.

For my second novel, I’m making it up. The story for The Vanishings (working title) was inspired by a real case of a series of girls who disappeared from the slums of the East End of London. This time, however, I’ve decided not to stick to the real case at all. I’ve transplanted it to the Isle of Skye and turned it into a story about a collector of folklore. I’m enjoying the freedom. I may, however, return to the ‘fiction based on fact’ format for my third novel. Just to make life difficult for myself.

Anna lives in Camberwell, London, not far from where the murder at the heart of The Unseeing took place. Whilst The Unseeing is her debut, it has already won awards including the Brixton Bookjam Debut Novel competition and she came runner up in the Grazia First Chapter competition judged by Sarah Waters. Anna studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, before becoming a criminal justice solicitor. She now divides her time between writing, reading, lawyering, and child-wrangling.

Find out more about Anna on her Website http://annamazzola.com/



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Comments (3)

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  1. Ann Griffin says:

    Anna, I encountered the exact problem with my first novel, but I didn’t realize it until it was in the hands of my editor, Kathryn Craft. Letting go of “the facts” as I knew them took me some time. Three months to be exact. And one day I woke up and said, “I can do this.” I thoroughly revised my book, and made the facts fit the story,and where that was impossible, I ditched them. The result is a much better book. Now that I’m beginning my second book, it’s a mistake I won’t make again.

  2. Frances Owen says:

    Thank you, Anna, for reminding me what I need to do, even if it’s tough, and also what historical fiction is: fiction, even when based on fact.

    Excellent advice. (I wish I’d read it ages ago…)

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