While writing my debut novel, Root, Petal, Thorn, I collected a variety of story pebbles from a treasure trove of family lore, and used them to build the foundation of the book. It’s far from a memoir, but many of my story nuggets came from time spent with my grandparents, and though my grandma wouldn’t tell me much about her own life, she loved to talk about her mother (my great-grandmother and namesake). If I was asked to describe Great-Grandma Ella’s life, the first thing I would do is pare it down to a series of noteworthy events.
1) When she was seven years old, everyone in her church class (except her) died of diphtheria.
2) Her mom died in childbirth when Ella was eleven, leaving her an only child who was then raised by her father and her maternal grandmother.
3) That grandmother (who was my great-great-great grandma) was the third wife to her best friend’s father. In other words, she was an unenthusiastic polygamist wife. She bore him eleven children. One of them was Ella’s mother, who died.
4) Great-grandma Ella married and became pregnant right before her husband left for WWI. He died in France from influenza and never met his daughter (my grandma).
As an impressionable child, I considered each of these life-changing circumstances with no small amount of hand-wringing. I was named after my great-grandma; might I not also suffer her fate? In fact, after learning exactly what diphtheria was, I tried more than once to convince my mom I could feel my throat constricting, even going so far as to gasp helplessly for a doctor before collapsing onto my bed. She didn’t buy it.
Decades later (having barely survived diphtheria), I put my hands to the keyboard and wove many of these legends in to narrative lore. While I wrote, I got to thinking: Why do readers seek out traumatic events in the stories they read? And why am I, myself, most interested in exploring the bleaker parts of a story?
According to a study conducted by The Ohio State University (2012), “People seem to use [narrative] tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own lives – to count their blessings – which helps explain why tragedies are so popular with audiences. Despite the sadness they induce; [narrative tragedies] result in an overall increase in happiness.” Case in point: In the bestselling novel by Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale, both sisters suffer tremendous loss, yet at the end (no spoilers…don’t worry) the reader is overcome with the continuity of their love, come what may. I wiped a tear after finishing this traumatic tale and closed it with a satisfied sigh.
Here’s the beauty of fictionalizing harrowing family history and embarrassing secrets. I love family stories, but my collected stones were un-cut gems, because most events are like the list above: fact-filled. Perhaps distressing to learn about, but they lack emotional context. The end of many a true story is dreadful or, even worse for the teller-of-stories, boring. But the fiction author is free to expand upon their tidbits of ancestry and explore possible consequences using a range of emotional details. The author is free to ask, “What if?”
So how to get away with it? The intent is not to harm, obviously, but to expand. In mixing up the events, changing the names, throwing in a few more characters, and altering the most-telling of details, the truth and consequences (so to speak) can be explored and no one can cry foul. You can explore your family history and have your happy ending (or your disastrous one) and no one can sue for slander. No one can say you didn’t get the story right. Because, of course, you didn’t. You wrote a fictional story. This, for me, is so much more fun than writing a memoir.
I challenge you to read Root, Petal, Thorn, or any of your other favorite novels. Then take a closer look at the author bio or acknowledgments. See if you can find a little fact in the fiction. Because no matter how implausible the story, there is always a whisper of truth.