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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Turning Family Research into a Novel

by Carla Rieger

If you spent years doing amazing family research, what do you finally do with it all? A compilation of facts about your family history may be interesting to you, a few close family members, and maybe other family historians, but what about the rest of the world? This article is about using your genealogical research as the starting point to create a compelling novel or short story. There is plenty of information available about how to turn your genealogical research into a nonfiction book as a legacy for your family but almost nothing about writing a fiction inspired by true events discovered in your research. What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing this kind of a project?


1. Making your story more readable

People tend to be drawn into a story if there is a certain structure to the story, or what myth expert, Joseph Campbell, might call The Monomyth. This is a basic pattern of stories found all over world and from all times in history that seems to have a powerful psychological effect on readers. Real lives are generally complicated and full of tangents and mundane aspects of life that are either confusing or generally un-interesting to the typical reader. Because of this, many so-called true stories are often just inspired by true events; meaning several characters or events have been collapsed into one, or timelines have been shortened, new events and characters have been added in, names and dates changed, and so on. Another reason to employ the Monomyth pattern is because people often do family research because they want to understand themselves more fully. Using this pattern will force you to uncover the universal truths in their journeys which in turn will help you and your readers learn some of life’s greatest lessons.

2. Protecting people’s privacy and avoiding legal hassles

Some people don’t want their life stories made public to others especially if there is controversial information included. Even those who agreed to be identified in a story have been known to later try to sue the author once it is on the market and they read the final version.  Even if you change their name, some family members have objected because the surrounding facts still point directly to them. Also you may feel free to talk about a relative that has passed away but later discover their descendants are unhappy about it and want to sue. As long as you are maintaining the truth in the essence of the story, changing gender, relationships, professions, geography or time periods can be a great way to protect yourself and others.

3. Missing information

It may be that you can’t find all the details of what happened to family due to records either not existing or being lost. Rather than leave parts of the story blank you may choose to invent them, or draw conclusions based on existing facts.


1. You might lose some purists

Some people will only read a book if they think it’s a totally true story rather than semi-biographical. This is a valid concern and so you will need to decide who you are writing down these stories for. If keeping things totally factual is important to you and your readers, and won’t create legal problems, then it may be worth trying to do that.

2. Your ancestors’ stories are already in a readable story form

The actual story of your ancestors may be already a strong narrative and therefore embellishing it may actually ruin the story.  It is unusual but you can find compact stories full of intrigue, dramatic tension and foreshadowing without much help from you as a writer. This is usually the case if you take just one incident in a person’s life such as surviving a shipwreck or winning an important audition that led to huge career success.

Feel free to comment below on what you think may be the advantages or disadvantages of turning your family research into a story or novel.


Carla Rieger is the author of the award winning book and now the screenplay The Change Artist. After her father died, she discovered a hidden box of mementos suggesting he had changed his identity a couple of times in his life. Her journey of uncovering the truth completely changed her life. She used a novel format instead of a memoir or biography because of the advantages listed above. For more information about Carla and the book go to: www.thechangeartistbook.com.

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