17 January 2022

Special Guest Post by Susanne Dunlap: Mining Your Family History for a Great Story



Mining Your Family History for a Great Story? Here Are Three Things to Know.

Writers come to historical fiction in many different ways. Some have been readers of it throughout their lives. Some are academic historians who want the freedom of invention to bring history to life for a wider audience. Others simply find themselves curious about events of the past and enjoy the research and the story craft.

Another avenue that often leads to writing historical fiction is stumbling on some fact about an ancestor, or discovering a trove of family history that leads you into a world you didn’t know existed—and that you’re connected with in some way. This can be very exciting, very inspiring. Maybe there’s a pirate in your past, or a war hero. 

Maybe one of your ancestors was a pioneer woman who blazed a trail across the world. Perhaps others lived through a great tragedy—a storm, a famine, a plague, a murder. If you dig far enough back, chances are there’s something beguiling in your family’s past.

In fact, family history can be a rich source of ideas for historical fiction. But if you really want to turn that history into a novel rather than simply recording it in a narrative to share with family members, you’ll have to do all the necessary hard work to craft a great story that strangers would find just as fascinating as you do.

Still thinking about it? Here are a few things to bear in mind as you go:

1. You need a real story.

No matter where your inspiration comes from, it still has to end up as a compelling, satisfying story. That means first of all you have to have a point—a reason—why the story needs to be written. It also means you have to be willing to dig for the hard times, the unpleasant truths, the unsavory characters in your past. You’ll need an antagonist as well as a protagonist, and you’ll have to put your protagonist through hell, no matter how much you like her. Perhaps hardest of all, you’ll have to spend time figuring out exactly where your story begins and ends.

2. You can’t get too hamstrung by what really happened.

It’s possible that the history itself is plenty juicy to provide ample material for a novel. But it’s also very unlikely that the events as they happened will arrange themselves in a satisfying story arc. Good stories are about change, about a protagonist’s journey from one state to another via hardship and tests. Sometimes it’s necessary at the very least to rearrange events, compress time, or even invent characters, actions, or underlying causes in order to make your plot work. And that’s okay. It’s fiction, first and foremost, wherever you found your inspiration.

3. You have to be willing to do the work.

This may seem obvious, but writing a good novel based on your family history takes much more than decent writing skills and a solid idea. It takes an understanding of what drives a narrative, how to get what’s in your head onto the page, and the willingness to change things you’ve sweated over for hours/days/weeks. It takes the same level of planning and prewriting, digging deep and researching, that any historical novel takes.

But the process itself can be immensely rewarding. So many people put writing and publishing a book on their bucket lists, and for good reason. There’s nothing like holding that printed volume in your hand and thinking, I did this.

In my business as an Author Accelerator Certified Book Coach, I use effective tools to help writers wrangle their ideas into shape, keep them motivated through the dark days, act as editor and cheerleader, and guide them to achieving the best manuscript they’re capable of. In the end, they have a book they can be proud of, whether they seek a traditional publishing contract, a hybrid publishing contract, or decide to self-publish—no matter where their initial inspiration came from.

Want to explore that story in your family’s past? I’d love to hear about it! To book a discovery call and find out more about working with me, please fill out this questionnaire. That way I’ll have a good idea of where you are in your project. It’s never too early—or to late—to start working with a book coach!

Susanne Dunlap

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About the Author

Susanne Dunlap is the author of twelve works of historical fiction for adults and teens, as well as an Author Accelerator Certified Book Coach. Her love of historical fiction arose partly from her PhD studies in music history at Yale University, partly from her lifelong interest in women in the arts as a pianist and non-profit performing arts executive. Her novel The Paris Affair was a first place CIBA award winner. The Musician’s Daughter was a Junior Library Guild Selection and a Bank Street Children’s Book of the Year, and was nominated for the Utah Book Award and the Missouri Gateway Reader’s Prize. In the Shadow of the Lamp was an Eliot Rosewater Indiana High School Book Award nominee. Susanne earned her BA and an MA (musicology) from Smith College and lives in Northampton, MA—moving to Biddeford, Maine in two weeks with her little dog, Betty. Find out more at Susanne's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @Susanne_Dunlap

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