Biographical fact or fiction?

I’ve been tempted to flick to the end of the novels I’ve read of late. This isn’t because I want to read the end of the story, I much prefer a surprise, but because I want to read the author’s note. The reason? The novels are biographical fiction and I like to know which parts of the story are based on fact, and which are pure fiction.

Sometimes, when I reach the author’s note, I’ve been disappointed to discover that a part of the plot that particularly touched me is complete fiction. On these occasions I have to remind myself that even if a particular event didn’t actually happen or a character didn’t actually exist, I still enjoyed reading the novel.

The idea of a film or novel being ‘based on a true story’ is something we all understand; while we gain an insight into real events and people we still expect to be entertained with a gripping plot. For that to happen we must see characters travel through a complete story arc and they must change in some way as a result of their journey. These are the conventions of story telling and to meet them sometimes  the real events have to be shifted about in time, or even invented.

Sarah-Jane Stratford’s Radio Girls strikes a good balance between fact and fiction. The novel’s protagonist is invented, which gives the author the freedom to imagine an entertaining hero’s journey style plot. In the backdrop is a well drawn portrait of the formidable Hilda Matheson and the newly-formed BBC. The fictionalised facts and the fiction in this novel work as two separate strands that pull together.

In my first novel I brought to life my version of Prunella Stack. In the 1930s Prunella, dubbed the perfect girl by the press, was instrumental in introducing the keep fit movement to Britain and across the empire. Prunella’s appearance in my novel started out as just a small role, but I enjoyed imagining her so much that her role grew until her outlook and views on the keep fit movement became pivotal in my fictional protagonist’s story arc. In my research I also uncovered two women called Natalie and Delphi whose lives were changed by the Women’s League and I worked backwards from my discovery to imagine how they reached this end point.

I only had Prunella’s autobiography, photographs and some silent footage to go on to write about her, and only once sentence about Natalie and Delphi, but it was enough to fuel my imagination. The experience left me feeling that I’d like my next project to be biographical fiction, but I know that one of the challenges will be deciding where to draw the line between fact and fiction.

In the author’s note for Villa America Liza Klaussmann describes the biographical fiction writing process ‘as a tricky business’ where ‘lines between the writer’s imagination and biographical fact become blurred and the past becomes ambiguous.’ She says that it is in the gaps in the main narrative that ‘the story lives.’ Priya Parmar author of the beautifully written Vanessa and her Sister says, ‘for me the difficulty came in finding enough room for invention in the negative spaces they [the Bloomsbury Group] left behind.’ While the characters are Parmar’s ‘fictionalised creations,’ the Bloomsboury Group’s lives are so well documented Parmar didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, stray too far from the facts and so she tinkered with chronologies here and there to better oil the story.

These authors’ notes have told me as much about the writers’ processes as their treatment of the biographical facts, but I think Klaussmann says it best when she describes the end result as ‘a work that is framed by fact, but is ultimately fiction.’


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