Reimagining True Stories

Last week, I had the pleasure of offering a workshop, via the wonderful Larksong Writers Place in Lincoln, Nebraska, for those who might be interested in reimagining a true story. This has been my approach for six of my novels, including my most recent, The Glassmaker’s Wife. I start with a factual story, and then I let my imagination go to work.

People often approach me with a story they think I simply must tell. I can sense immediately if they’re correct. If there’s something about the true story that allows me to imagine characters with conflicted hearts, I take heed. If the only thing that stands out is the plot, I generally decline the invitation. Characters and their contradictions make compelling fiction, so I’m always looking for how I can see a true story from the interior of a character and what I imagine to be the oppositions they hold. For instance, in The Glassmaker’s Wife, the fifteen-year-old hired girl, Eveline Deal, considers her mistress, Betsey Reed, from a position of conflicting feelings:

Sometimes Miss Betsey would snap at her because she scorched a shift she was ironing or she left the bread to bake too long, and Eveline would let herself hate her just a little, all along wishing Miss Betsey would throw her arms around her neck and press her close and say she was sorry, oh, my precious girl forgive me.

Eveline’s simultaneous adoration and distaste was my entry into this true story of Betsey Reed, who was accused of murdering her husband in 1844 by poisoning him. The story of the murder and the trial that followed is interesting by itself, but I never would have told it without first imagining this story of Eveline.

If you start with a true story, you might write at least three “what-if” questions. These would be questions that would vary from the facts and be located within the characters. In the case of The Glassmaker’s Wife, one of my questions would have read something like this: “What if Eveline Deal was a flighty girl obsessed with romance and sensitive to the slights of others?” Such a question ended up guiding much of the novel’s plot from the character’s interior.

You might also consider the two characters who will stand at the heart of what you’re writing. Which one will feel more deeply? You might even use this as a prompt to get inside that character: “There was a part of her that believed/feared/wanted (or whatever verb you choose). . . .(you fill in the blank), but there was another part of her that. . . .(again, you fill in the blank). Such work can help you identify the central conflict within that character. You can then use that to create plot.

Finally, you might take stock of the documented objects from the true story. In my case, there was a pinch of white powder and a scorched piece of paper. You can then create an object from your imagination. I chose Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine of the time, and I chose to let Eveline read its letters from the lovelorn to Betsey in the evenings. The imagined object can create plot.

Keep in mind that your objective is not to replicate the facts of a true story but instead to allow your imagination to intersect with the facts to create a different story, perhaps more memorable, because it gives readers what the news reports can’t—the glorious, complicated inner lives of characters.


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