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Writer's Room => Research => Topic started by: mary-hopewell on May 16, 2017, 06:33 AM

Title: Using real people
Post by: mary-hopewell on May 16, 2017, 06:33 AM
Hello :)

Hoping some of you can help me.
I'm currently writing a follow-on book (historical/fantasy fiction). Book one was about solving a certain historical mystery in the modern day, and it involved a lot of looking back at the antics of real people from around five hundred years in the past. Because the characters lived so long ago I was able to pretend certain things happened to them that most likely didn't, but I still had to be very careful about historical accuracy.

The problem I'm having is that the characters in book one were well-known historical figures. For book two I plan to look at a different historical mystery that occurred more recently (Victorian England). This mystery doesn't have any specific people involved in it - it was a peculiar phenomenon that happened in a country village and was witnessed by unnamed villagers.
When I first set about writing book two I invented some fictional characters for me to play with who could have lived in this country village, but then I realised that because I'm writing about real events and putting a slightly fictional twist on them, I have to make sure that when it comes to the details that people can actually go and look up I need to be accurate.

Basically, two questions:

1. Can I just invent some characters and place them within an established historical event? A reader might go and look at parish records or something hoping to find out more about the people I've written about, only to find that they don't exist like they did in book one.

2. If I do have to use real people, is it ok for me to just look at some old records and pick a few individuals who lived in that village and were of the right gender, age and occupation? The people I pick could be a living person's not-so-ancient ancestors; could this cause problems?

It's tricky because in book one I had all the characters pre-selected and was very restricted about how much fiction I could apply to the story. This time I have almost no pre-selected characters to work with and because very little is known about this particular mystery I'm going to be applying a lot of fiction to it so I need my characters to fit the story I'm hoping to write. Real people from the time might not fit.

Just in case that makes no sense, here's an example. To fit with the fictional storyline I'm applying to this historical mystery, I need my characters to have been farmers living within a certain area who were friends with an inventor. This might not work if I have to find real people, because there might not have been any farmers or inventors living in that place at that time.

So frustrating!!  :smokhead
Title: Re: Using real people
Post by: mrh on May 16, 2017, 08:05 AM
1. Absolutely. If you feel there must be an explanation, your Author's Note can just say that all the characters are fictional, but the events are not, and maybe elaborate a bit about those. Nor do you need to stick slavishly to the events or their timing. You can use that same Author's Note to mention anything you may have changed for the sake of story.

2. This may not apply since you can invent characters, but I wouldn't pull *private citizens* from any time period and use them "whole cloth" in a novel. Use them as models, but change names and other details. As you've no doubt noticed in your reading, and did in your own first book, using well-known historical figures can be done.

You say your second book is a sequel to your first. Just clarifying: is this because both historical mysteries are solved in the present day by the same MC? If not, I'd consider the two books standalone historical mysteries, since you don't have the same time period or the same characters. So in that case both books would fit your brand, but they wouldn't be part of a series.
Title: Re: Using real people
Post by: mary-hopewell on May 16, 2017, 08:57 AM
Hi, thank you very much for taking the time to help me out.

I guess what I'll do is try changing the names and details of real people - that's probably the closest I'll get to being historically accurate. The accuracy part is really important to me because it's supposed to be like the reader is glimpsing through time at a real event and at how it affected real people.

It's a sequel but not in the sense that it involves the same main character as book one. It's a new main character solving a new mystery a little while on from the first book (there'll be references to what became of the main characters in book one but that's all).

Anyway, many thanks for the advice.