Using Real People and Events in Fiction – Michelle Diener

Our Sensational Summer Friday guest today is a true world traveler – she was born in London, was raised in KwaZula Natal, South Africa, and she now lives in Australia.  Laura Drake knows Michelle Diener through her RWA-WF (Women’s Fiction) chapter, where Michelle is the VP of Communications. The title sounds vague, but in an online chapter, this is a huge job!

You can learn more about Michelle at her group blog, Magical Musings.

Her debut book comes out on Tuesday of next week, and no one is more excited about her debut release than we are!

Michelle has generously offered to give one lucky commenter a copy of IN A TREACHEROUS COURT. We’ll announce the winner on Monday’s post. Be sure to leave Michelle a comment!

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Firstly, thank you so much to Laura for inviting me to visit and guest blog today at Writers in the Storm!

I can hear you now. You are shouting, “No! Don’t do it!”

Fortunately, the people I’m talking about have been dead for nearly 500 years and won’t be calling me to account any time soon. Nevertheless, there are still issues with using historical figures in your work or weaving your story around events that happened. This week the first book in my Tudor-set series, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, is being launched into the world, and it contains mostly real people and a number of real events, so I know a bit about the issues involved.

When I first came across a reference to my main character, Susanna Horenbout, in a work of historical non-fiction, I was fascinated by her. She was trained as an artist by her father, one of the most eminent illuminators and painters of his day, and praised by numerous Renaissance master painters as exceptionally talented.

Susanna was sent to the court of Henry VIII when she was around 22 years old, presumably to work for Henry as a court painter, but very little is known of what she did for him.

The plot of IN A TREACHEROUS COURT came to me very clearly as I delved deeper into the facts known about Susanna and the events of the time in which she would have been sent to the Tudor court. But I was nervous. How much leeway could I take with a character who is based on a real person?

What I had to get my mind around was that as a work of fiction, I didn’t actually have any restraints, other than the ones I chose to put on myself. And so I decided to use every fact I could find, and every event of that time, and make my story fit around them. For me, that made the story more satisfying.  While it may have been harder to do than if I decided to ‘loosely interpret’ both the character and the historical period, it was worth the trouble.

Don’t get me wrong, I love novels that play fast and loose with history just as much, but I wanted a gritter, more realistic feel. The thing is, when you take the ‘faithful to history’ tack, you have to be sure you have been faithful to history. That means research. And more research. I’m almost paranoid about my facts, and I quadruple check them. I’ve probably still missed things, but I like to think I’ve done as much as possible to make sure I haven’t.

One good thing about my two main characters is that while there is some information on them, there isn’t a lot. I had some broad strokes to work with, but I had an incredible amount of leeway, too. With a more famous character, like Henry VIII, it is a lot harder to play around with him as a character.  An even bigger burden is reader expectations.

If your readers know a historical figure or event, either from common knowledge or study, they will have a perception of it that is not necessarily your perception. Writing Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette or Napoleon, for example, you will come up with a great deal of resistance if you break from the norm as far as character or motivation goes, whereas I’m the first fiction writer to have a book with Susanna Horenbout in it in any form, let alone as a main character, as far as I’m aware (there are obviously non-fiction references to her). That gives me the chance to create her as I want, without the weight of public knowledge exerting any force on my creation.

I found using real characters and events satisfying, challenging and the hardest work I’d done up until then when I wrote IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, and I’ve done it again with a sequel, KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS, which is out in February 2012 ( I’ve just seen the cover, which is gorgeous!).

I have a copy of IN A TREACHEROUS COURT to give away to one lucky commenter (US residents only, unfortunately!), and I’d love to know if you’ve written a book which covers a real event, either contemporary or historical, or uses a real person, and how you found the process.

~Michelle Diener

Michelle lives in Australia with her husband and two children. She’s worked as an editor, a publisher, managed a small IT business, and now writes full time. Her debut historical novel, IN A TREACHEROUS COURT, is due out with Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books on August 9th, and the second book in the series, KEEPER OF THE KING’S SECRETS, is due for an early 2012 release. You can find out more about her at her website and her group blog, Magical Musings. Or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

About IN A TREACHEROUS COURT:

Henry VIII’s most lethal courtier and his newly appointed artist become the only thing keeping him on the throne – and if they survive, neither will ever be the same.

John Parker is one of Henry VIII most useful courtiers — utterly merciless and completely loyal. But one small favour for his King will pull Parker into a deadly plot against the throne, one that will test his courage, his resolve, and most especially, his heart.

A commission from Henry VIII should have been the crowning achievement of Susanna Horenbout’s career, but before the beautiful and talented artist even sets foot in England, she finds herself in possession of a secret that could change its history. With Parker as her only protection against killers who will stop at nothing to silence her, Susanna has to trust the dangerous, enigmatic courtier. She’s used to fighting in a man’s world, but she never expected to be fighting for her life.

What people are saying about IN A TREACHEROUS COURT?

•  “IN A TREACHEROUS COURT is an action-adventure-mystery-historical that grabs the reader on page one and doesn’t let go. It reminds me of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE in the way it captures the ‘feel’ of Tudor England, moving with equal aplomb from royal palace to refuse-clogged London street to leaky rowboat on the Thames.”  Kate Emerson http://www.kateemersonhistoricals.com, author of BY ROYAL DECREE: Secrets of the Tudor Court.

•  “Awesome! History woven flawlessly into riveting fiction.” Tammy J. Schneider, Special Features Editor and book reviewer at “Affaire de Coeur” magazine

•  “Just when readers think there is nothing new to be learned about Henry VIII, debut author Diener delivers a taut suspense . . . that will keep you turning the pages.” Kathe Robin, 4 star review in RT Magazine August 2011 issue.

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21 Responses to Using Real People and Events in Fiction – Michelle Diener

  1. JM Merchant says:

    Great article Michelle. Certainly given me food for thought.

    I’m currently writing my first novel which is based in the twilight years of the “Golden Age of Piracy” and though my characters and events are purely fictional I wasn’t sure about using references to actual historical figures and events.

    I think we have to be able to credit our readers with the ability to accept that what we are writing is just fiction, even with some form of factual basis, but of course we do have to be careful of the puritans who believe taking events and characters out of context to be sacrilege🙂

    Thanks again.

    • Oh, I think you’ll be able to do so much with your historical piracy backdrop, JM. As an avid historical reader, I understand that even some of the experiences of factual characters are fictionalized–who would know everything that happened to someone centuries ago? Get that novel finished and published. I want to read it!
      -Fae Rowen

    • JM, it’s a pleasure! I think using real events and at least referencing real characters enriches any historical fiction novel, even if the main characters are fictional. Not only does it give context to the story, but it prevents the history from being just a backdrop.

  2. Laura Drake says:

    You have my respect, Michelle – I’d never have the guts to write any kind of Historical – I’m lucky to get the comptemporary facts correct!

  3. Stacy Green says:

    Very interesting. I’ve toyed around with doing a historical novel, and it’s always the idea of sticking close to history or taking too much liberty that’s stalled me. As JM said, we have to assume our readers will understand our work is just fiction based on some facts.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I’m right there with you, Stacy. Maybe in a hundred years it will be hard to fictionalize aspects of today’s public figures, what with paparazzi and twitter! What better excuse to delve into your chosen historical time than to do research for that novel!
      -Fae Rowen

    • Stacy, don’t let it stall you! You can really do what you like. Take Shakespeare – he certainly didn’t stick to any facts in his historicals :)). And then you get the much more literal translations of history like Wolf Hall. Only you can decide what is the right line for your story.

      What I did in IN A TREACHEROUS COURT was give an author’s note at the end, explaining which parts I made up and which parts were true.

  4. Great post, Michelle. I love reading historicals, but lack the patience to research. Had my history teacher in high school used historical novels, I wouldn’t have memories of chalkboard erasers whizzing past my right ear. He had issues with students staring out the window and daydreaming while he droned on-and-on about…

    Heck! How can I remember? I wasn’t listening.

    KUDOS to historical writers. Count on me to never, ever question your facts.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Yep, Gloria, my hat is off to historical writers too. I love to read them and, like Laura, cannot imagine the kind of work it adds to the process to write them.

      Now Sharla Rae, here at WITS, writes beautiful historical romances and LOVES the research process. She swears it helps her write the books, etc. After all this time of working with her, I still can’t imagine doing all that research up front (and liking it).

    • LOL. Gloria! I think historical fiction is a great way to get a feel for a certain historical period. Teachers should start using HF as a way to get their pupils interested in the subject🙂 . I am loving some of the reviews I’ve gotten for IN A TREACHEROUS COURT where the reviewer has mention that my book has sparked an interest in them for the period and they’ve been Googling and looking up some of the characters. That’s pure historical fiction writer’s nirvana to me!

  5. Marci says:

    Thanks for your comments which were very informative. I’m writing a contemporary novel which incorporates fictionalzed versions of several recent news events. It seems as if the real events have become the springboard from which my imagination takes off. It’s an exhilarating process, especially for a former journalist who had to be addicted to “just the facts, ma’m” Thanks for the inspiration!

    • I’m betting your imagination worked overtime even when you were a journalist, Marci. You must have a wealth of information that you can piece together from your experiences.
      -Fae Rowen

    • Good luck with your contemp novel, Marci. I love ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories. They add an extra edge of reality, but you still have lots of room to play.

  6. Clarissa Southwick says:

    I write historical romance, but have always been afraid to put real characters into my books. So thank you for giving us such liberating advice.
    I have been on a historical reading binge this week and would love to add In A Treacherous Court to my reading list. Please count me in on the drawing.

  7. Thank you, Clarissa, and it’s a pleasure. I’m glad to have liberated you *g*!

  8. I’m currently working on an Alt. History store based during the Third Crusade. I take a page or two from Eric Flint and S. M. Stirling, the authors who inspired me to write the book in the first place. It has modern day characters thrown back in time into the middle of the war. I came up with the idea quickly, but found the central theme to the story (the battle of Arsuf, and a nasty bit of history about Richard the Lionheart I never read about in school) while researching the period. I have several historical characters, as well as some which I treat as having possibly existed, rather than being pure fiction. Who is to say they didn’t exist; they just weren’t famous. It’s good to know I’m not the only one in the historical fiction boat.

    • Good luck with your alternate history, William. As fiction writers, we certainly have so much leeway and so many ways to structure and tell our tale. And yes, we can create characters that could well have existed, given the circumstances and the conditions of the time, even though they aren’t recorded anywhere.

  9. Liz says:

    IN A TREACHEROUS COURT has been such a fun book to read about. I must admit to been a little tired of the usual characters, so two of whom I knew nothing are treats. On one of the blogs mention was made of Anya Seton’s Katherine–my introduction to historical fiction.
    I read, not write, so no insight on process but I admire your ability.

    • Thank you, Liz. How lovely that you’ve read some of the other interviews and posts I’ve done. I ate Anya Seton up in my teens. I have read them all. And Georgette Heyer. And as for being a reader, that’s why we writers do what we do. Readers are always welcome anywhere🙂 .

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