This blog was featured on 07/30/2018
Writing About Family in Historical Fiction
Written by
Linda Ulleseit
July 2018
Written by
Linda Ulleseit
July 2018

I am very thankful to my grandmother for telling me stories about the strong women in our family. My imagination flew with women who knew Mark Twain, who sued to vote almost forty years before it was legal, who opened their own businesses, and who were lesbian long before gay rights, who were pioneers on their own terms. It is because of these rich stories that I enjoy reading historical fiction featuring strong female characters. The logical next step, for a writer, was to put down my grandmother’s stories into novels.

Under the Almond Trees features three of these women. First, I wrote down everything I knew about them from family legend. Then I researched the time and place where they lived. Anyone who has done this knows that the real story starts well after all that is done. When you have the facts and figures, you need to create the dialogue, personality, and story arc. With just the facts, you look back and say, “What a great life. Too bad it didn’t have any drama! Everything was so easy.” In reality, though, the protagonist’s life was full of drama. That drama needs to be enhanced, or fictionalized completely, in order to have a compelling story.

But what if the person you are making stuff up about is still alive? With Under the Almond Trees, all three of the featured women had passed away. Other family members, though, are still alive. I included photographs in the book, so readers know the roots of the novel are real people. When writing each scene, I had to decide if it was powerful enough, or important enough, to risk wrath. Sometimes the scenes that may cause tension are the important scenes that create tension and drama in your book.

My current novel in progress, Aloha Spirit, is inspired by my husband’s grandmother, a women I greatly admire. While she is no longer with us, two of her daughters are, as well as the extended family in Hawaii. In this case, very few details are known about her early life, so I had to create it. I worried how the family would take this. Finally I realized that the novel was heavily fictionalized. I changed the names of the characters and started talking about it as being inspired by Grandma instead of about her.

Most importantly, the stories of these strong women need to be told. Don’t let fear of backlash hinder you. Write the best story you can. If you handle the material well enough, the family may be honored.

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