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YA Historical fiction based on real family

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Eight years ago, I came across a dazzling story about a mother and daughter adventure that took place in the Pacific theater in WWII. I met the daughter (who was then in her 90s) and talked extensively with her son to see if I could write a magazine story about them. There were timelines and partial diary entries, but sadly, not enough documentation for me to build a narrative nonfiction feature.

But the story is perfect for a YA historical fiction novel—a sort of "based on real events" page-turner.  But this would mean asking the adult son to let me use the bones of the story to create a work of fiction, loosely based on their adventure.

I believe I could pitch their story to a national outlet for a one-page article about their travels (satisfying the adult son's hope to get the real story out there), and then ask to do something creative with it. I'm going to talk with him about it in August.

Has anyone ever done this? Is this a fool's errand? Pitfalls that I should avoid/can't avoid?


#1 - July 20, 2022, 10:03 AM

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My first thought is you need to make sure the son hasn't gone forward with any other project. You wouldn't want to step on that if he has.

My second thought is you can fictionalize so much that it's no longer quite his family's story. I do know that may not be true if events that must happen in the story can't be moved to other locations, etc. But it might be worth trying. Then you'd be "inspired by" instead of "based upon."

If you have any legal agreement with the son, look at that first. Meanwhile, I'm intrigued to learn this story, so that's a good sign.
#2 - July 20, 2022, 06:39 PM
Twitter: @dvilardi1

No, I haven't done this. But, like Debbie, I think you can change the story enough to fictionalize it. After all, most of us are inspired by real life situations and we change the characters' names, locations, ages, sometimes gender, etc.

An adult novel I just read, MEANT TO BE, by Emily Giffen, is a fictionalized reimagining of the meeting and relationship of John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The names of the protagonists start with J and C (but are different). Some of the background is similar, some is invented. The author included an Author's Note which explained how she was inspired by the historical figures and what she fictionalized. Nowhere does she mention asking for or getting permission from the Kennedy family for fictionalizing the story. By the way, this was a very well written novel and I highly recommend it.
#3 - July 21, 2022, 02:22 PM

Barb  :owl


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It seems like anything out there in public view is up for grabs as far as turning events you were inspired by into fiction. As you've already experienced, NF is the real challenge because then you must include actual facts and get permission, etc. You wouldn't want to do this with anyone you know without their permission, but you are not doing that. These people seem like strangers who had their stories already made public. You are simply using their story as a catalyst for something new.
#4 - July 22, 2022, 08:21 PM
ROYALLY ENTITLED (inspirational/historical YA) and OOPS-A-DAISY (humorous MG) out now.


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