When he contemplated a fresh block of marble, Michelangelo believed his next sculpture was already inside and his job was to chip away carefully until he found it. I have the same feeling as I begin to write a novel. They come to me as a sense of a story, a hint of a character, and I have to tease the finished novel out of an amorphous mass of ideas and impressions.
I tend to write novels about real people, particularly women from the early decades of the twentieth century whom I feel have been misunderstood or misrepresented. As I consider potential subjects, I’m looking for someone with a compelling story that resonates in the twenty-first century, but I’m also looking for a novel shape hidden amidst the huge unstructured volume of facts that comprise an actual life.
Once I’ve chosen a subject, I deep-dive into the research and try to fine-tune the narrative arc I want to follow. Biographical novels need inciting incidents and suspense, pace and cliffhangers, just as with other types of fiction. I find drafting the cover copy can help me nail down what’s important. What’s the elevator pitch? Which one question would I ask my subject were they alive today and willing to answer me?
Once I know the rough arc, I decide the part of my character’s life to focus on. Will the time frame cover decades or just a few days? There will be vast swathes of biographical detail I can’t include, and I have to force myself to be ruthless with them, like all the chunks and splinters of marble Michelangelo discarded on his studio floor. There’s a danger of trying to shoehorn in fascinating facts, but if they don’t move the narrative forward or illuminate character, preferably both, they shouldn’t be there.
Biographies can tell us what happened, when it happened, perhaps even why it happened, but they can’t describe what it felt like to be that person, in that era, living through their experiences. When writing fiction about a real person, I think about which point of view will successfully reveal the emotional core of the story. Can the subject tell you their own story in first person, as Paula McLain did so successfully in The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley? Or is that too limiting, since the reader can only know what the subject knows?
Biographies can tell us what happened, when it happened, perhaps even why it happened, but they can’t describe what it felt like to be that person, in that era, living through their experiences.
When writing about Wallis Simpson in Another Woman’s Husband, I decided she wouldn’t be honest or self-analytical enough to tell us the truth, so I wrote it from the point of view of a school friend, Mary Kirk, who knew her from the age of fifteen up to the abdication crisis – after which Mary married Wallis’s second husband, Ernest Simpson. If anyone knew the real woman, Mary did.
Sometimes multiple points of view are the best way to reveal the truth. In Elizabeth Fremantle’s The Queen’s Gambit, about Katherine Parr’s marriage to Henry VIII, she uses two close-third-person narrators: Katherine herself, and a maid called Dot who is a keen observer and eavesdropper at court and can tell us about scheming and chicanery that were kept hidden from the Queen.
World creation is crucial in historical novels, but it can be achieved with a sprinkling of detail and contemporary language rather than dense paragraphs of description. Some settings need to be described in detail but others can just be rough outline sketches, and these are instinctive decisions I make along the way.
One difficulty can lie in finding an authentic voice for a real character. If they left diaries, letters, a memoir, radio or filmed interviews, this is helpful for catching their vocabulary and vocal style. It’s also useful to read contemporary novels set in that area. For example, Edith Wharton novels are great for hearing the way people spoke in the 1910s/20s. Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything is great for the 1950s and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room for the 1970s.
And now the big question: how accurate do you have to be when fictionalizing a real person’s story? The answer depends on type of novel you are writing. Is your goal to give a true insight or to tell a great story? Or can you do both?
I like to aim for a portrait of my subject that feels emotionally authentic—but, of course, it’s not. All historical fiction is anachronistic because despite our best efforts, we can’t entirely put ourselves into the mindset of characters who lived decades or centuries before we were born. We can’t know all the cultural, social and familial influences they were subject to, but we can make a stab at a plausible picture that fits within the world of our novel.
I think it’s completely admissible to invent characters, to shift the timeline, and to make up scenes that help to move your narrative forward. Sometimes there are gaps in the historical record. Why did Agatha Christie disappear for ten days at the height of her fame? What happened to the little princes in the Tower? Biographers can leave such questions open-ended but novelists need to answer them.
n Jackie and Maria and A Beautiful Rival, I wrote about two women who were rivals but, according to biographers, Jackie Kennedy never met Maria Callas, and Helena Rubinstein never met Elizabeth Arden. As a storyteller, I needed them to confront each other before the end of my novels.
Novels have shapes, with a beginning, middle, and an end that feels appropriate to the story—real life frequently doesn’t offer what we might consider natural justice. Killers get away with murder, the greedy get rich, and the bad guys become successful politicians. Authors can turn this around in “what if?” novels. The brutal murder of the innocent young Romanovs in Ekaterinburg in 1918 felt wrong to me, so I reimagined an alternative future for them in two of my novels.
In Jackie and Maria and A Beautiful Rival, I wrote about two women who were rivals but, according to biographers, Jackie Kennedy never met Maria Callas, and Helena Rubinstein never met Elizabeth Arden. As a storyteller, I needed them to confront each other before the end of my novels, just as Batman has to confront the Joker and Spiderman the Green Goblin. In imagining what those meetings would be like, I drew on the characterizations I’d created earlier in the novel to try and make the showdowns emotionally plausible, while giving an ending that was satisfying on the novel’s terms.
Fictionalizing the lives of real people is a bit like acting: you step inside their shoes and try to imagine their thoughts and feelings. You have the rough scaffolding of historical fact, but you also have the freedom to improvise. Sometimes it feels as if the finished novel already existed and your job was to extract it from the ether without damaging it. That’s when you know it’s working.
A Beautiful Rival by Gill Paul is available from William Morrow Books.