Forgetting the Facts: Imagination and the True Story

Many of my novels are based in fact. I start with the real story, and then I invite my imagination to blend with what really happened. I create characters who had nothing to do with the factual story. I alter events, reshaping the narrative with the hope of making a memorable story. The facts give me the basic narrative arc, and I let my imagination alter that arc as I try to write a more interesting story than the reportage of true events can offer. I find it easy to distance myself from the true events so I can allow this imagining when I’m writing about things that happened to people with whom I had no close contact. Writing the stories of my loved ones, though, can prove to be much more challenging.

That’s what I’m learning as I work on a new novel that takes as its narrative spine the story of my wife Cathy’s mother, and by extension Cathy herself and the two full sisters she now knows thanks to the science of DNA. I don’t want to talk about the details of the story since I’m still in the process of writing it. Suffice it to say it’s a story born from family secrets and one so old there’s nary a soul left alive to speak of what really happened. In a way, that’s good for me since what I don’t know can only be created instead of reported.

Which leads me to my first thought for those of us who write stories based in fact. Sometimes the less known the better. The less we know, the more we create, and the more we create, the more interesting the story becomes. Writing about loved ones often forces us into a feeling of obligation. We may feel we need to spin the tale exactly how it happened. After all, even if we’re writing fiction, we’re ultra-aware that we’re putting our family members, no matter how disguised, on the page. We may become less willing to change the facts of their characters because we’re just too close to the people upon whom those characters are based.

We have to become skilled in the art of forgetting. We have to forget some of the facts of the real story, holding on to just enough to guide the narrative while not constraining it. We also have to forget that we’re writing about people who matter to us. Before we begin to write we might be wise to do some preparatory work with our characters. We can make a list of a few details that we associate with the real people—quirks they had, objects they owned, ways of speaking, etc.—and then we might throw in a few anomalous details in the form of things they never would have owned, ways they never would have spoken, idiosyncrasies they never had. Our objective is to make our characters just a little familiar to us and just a little strange so we can let our imagination go to work.

The fiction that we base on fact will be more compelling if we find ways to keep one foot in the real world of the story and one foot in the imagined world. Thinking in terms of opposites as I did in the example of anomalous details should do the trick. Changing the setting or the time period might achieve the same objective. Above all, I suggest creating characters who had no place in the true story. New actors create new events and open up our imaginations. We have to lie a little when we write fiction based in fact. I’m finding in harder to lie about the real story that’s driving this new novel of mine, so I’m hoping some of my advice in this post will pay off for me as well as for you.



  1. Carter Seaton on July 11, 2022 at 8:21 am

    Lee, I’ve done exactly this in three of my four novels. It’s good to have my process validated by you.

    • Lee Martin on July 12, 2022 at 10:06 am

      I’m glad to hear of others working this way. Thanks, Carter!

  2. Ellen Birkett Morris on July 11, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Fantastic advice. We need to give ourselves permission to do all this to reach the greater truth that fiction can provide.

    • Lee Martin on July 12, 2022 at 10:05 am

      Yes, Ellen, that’s it exactly. We can’t stay completely faithful to the real story and find the additional layers of truth that emerge once we engage our imaginations.

  3. tina l Neyer on July 11, 2022 at 2:50 pm

    When writing these characters based on people I’ve known, long dead, I find it easy to feel what I call the generational pull. In other words, I believe there are things inherent in us that have been passed down by others and to see someone close to me behave in a way my character might feeds a sort of 360 degree view of the person in the story. It is also valuable when creating characters out of my own ancestry.

    Thanks for the post, Lee. I’ll try the exercise you suggest to bring characters to life.

    • Lee Martin on July 12, 2022 at 10:04 am

      These are very interesting thoughts, Tina. Thanks so much for sharing them! I agree that the layers of generations can be so useful to our understanding of our characters.

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