Thursday, May 26, 2011

Using non-fiction to make fiction

So here's a question for you...

My mom gave me her collection of letters that her parents exchanged while my grandpa was overseas during WW2. There are A LOT of letters neatly typed out on beautifully thin correspondence papers that span the course of a number of years. (Don't ask me how long--I haven't gone through each letter to put them in chronological order.)

My grandma kept the letters in an old file box, complete with a magnetic flap. Over the years, the box has yellowed with age but has protected the precious letters within.

Fast forward to now, and I'm eager to get into the file box and see what secret love letters my grandparents exchanged. I love the idea of waiting (im)patiently by the mail box, waiting for that one letter to arrive telling you that your beloved is not only still alive, but misses you more than you miss them. In this era of instantaneous messaging, the agony of the wait has been reduced to minutes or hours instead of days into weeks.

Okay, back to my question...

Strands of a plot are pulling in my brain. I so badly want to go through these letters (and dare I say, scan them for future/safety?) and find a love story. I want to pull together two time lines and two love stories and somehow toss them gently in the air like a pot of cooked pasta and find a masterpiece beneath all those pages. (Have I mentioned there are A LOT of pages? For a woman of very few words, my prim and proper grandma sure wrote some letters!)

I once attended a writing course and this idea came up. One of my classmates said I couldn't write a story using these letters as material because it would read like a memoir even though they weren't my memories.

My bigger concern is reading through these pages, eager to find some trace of mystery or intrigue, just to find the military redacted any juicy bits or worse, that my grandparents expressed their love in stale paragraphs that leave my eyes begging for Visine.

And my even bigger concern is leaving the comfortable world of writing fantasy for a story based on historical romance, something I openly admit I know NOTHING about.

Have any of you used real source material from family members to inspire a story? Or have you ever hopped genres into something entirely out of your comfort zone? How did it work out for you?


  1. I haven't done this, but an on-line friend used her family's personal history to write a novel. She sold it, too. It was about what her aunt endured after WWII in Lithuania at the hands of the soviets. It was all based on true events, but was a fictionalized account.

    I think you have a wonderful resource in your hands. And nothing says you have to stay loyal to what's written in the letters. If you're inspired to amplify the love story or whatever, I think you can do that and still do justice to your family's personal history. Just my two cents. :)

  2. TL, you have to give it a try! As LG says, you can always amplify the love story if it's not what you want. Although, given that your grandmother kept them safe for so long, I don't think you'll have much to worry about. They were obviously very precious to her. I would write the fictionalised account, and dedicate the book to your grandparents.

    Somewhere in all my bits and pieces, I have a telegram from the army telling my great-grandmother that her son was killed in France in the First World War. It's very bland and very clinical, but she still kept it. I also have a letter from a friend to the dead man's brother, who was also serving, and it doesn't spare the details of what happened. One day I will write my WWI story!

  3. Thanks, LG. I think you're right--as the author, I can create whatever story I want from those pages. I don't have to stick to just the typed out words.

    Jen, I couldn't imagine reading the details of what happened! It sounds like you have two amazing pieces of source material!

    I think I'll start by putting them in chronological order and read the first few months and see if anything jumps out at me. If anything, perhaps it's an appropriate way to spend some time on Memorial Day.

  4. Hi, TL! I have an award for you on my blog today.

  5. Okay - I'm not a writer in any way, shape or form...but I'm a reader and I think it sounds like it would make for a great background to a story!


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