How to Transform a Family Legend into Historical Fiction

Today’s guest post is by Lottie Guttry.

If you are lucky enough to be born into a family with a good storyteller—perhaps an uncle, cousin, or grandmother—you may find yourself sitting around a table with family members while the storyteller relates the daring adventures of an ancestor.

When this happens, young and old sit transfixed by the story, even though they’ve heard it many times before.

According to Dr. Francis Abernethy, author and editor, a family legend is “a story concerning the exploits and adventures of an ancestor, passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Its main value is in the revelation of the family spirit, what it believes and how it thinks.”

If you are an author and lucky enough to have such a legend in your family’s rich history, you will likely pounce upon it as the basis of your historical novel.

But before you begin, be aware of the perils, preparation, and pleasures of such an endeavor.


  • Be careful! All family stories are not that interesting. An agent, nicknamed the “Query Shark,” is quoted as saying, “I really don’t care if it’s based on a true story. If anything, that makes me less likely to read on because, zut alors! Most people’s lives don’t have much of a plot.”
  • When you write a query letter or promote your book, tout the qualities of the characters, research, or twists in the plot rather than announce that the novel is based on a true story. Try to avoid the “I don’t really care if it’s a true story” reaction.
  • You may worry that your relatives will be offended by some fictional flaws you give the characters. Was Millie really pregnant when she got married? Did William really desert the Army? Be prepared to explain these differences between history and fiction.


  • Develop believable, dynamic, multifaceted characters. You may have to change the personalities of the real, historical figures in your family story and allow them to develop their own identities.
  • Don’t be afraid to change aspects of your characters, even though they are based on real people who were in your family. It is historical fiction, after all.
  • You’ll need to add new characters that may not have existed in order to allow your protagonist to react to criticism, hostility, charm, heroism, duplicity, and evil to demonstrate different aspects of her personality.
  • You’ll need to add events to create a compelling plot line. Again, just because it’s a true story does not mean it’s an interesting one. You’ll need to embellish and invent to make the story one readers are compelled to follow. Make it your own!
  • Join a critique group whose members will read your chapters and make suggestions for improvement. Or hire an editor to help you shape your novel.
  • Research! Research! Research! Learn all you can about the time period, the place, clothes people wore, food they ate, and common attitudes during the period. Don’t discount memoirs, journals, and letters, even unpublished descriptions based on the place and/or time period.
  • Learn from successful historical fiction writers who based their novels on family stories. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

Cold Mountain, Frazier’s bestselling novel, is based on a story about his great-great uncle W. P. Inman. Frazier knew little about the man—just a tiny part of a family story—that Inman walked home from the Civil War. Frazier said he thought about what Inman was leaving and where he was going.  He claimed that event shaped the character as well as the plot.

Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird, an American classic based on her memories of her lawyer father portrayed in the character Atticus Finch.


Now that you’ve digested the caveats, I’ll turn to the positive results of writing a novel based on your family story.

  • The fact they these characters are your kin will give you love and a sense of ownership of them. Researching their locations and their experiences will have more meaning because your family members actually lived through the events.
  • Your relatives—fellow descendants of the real people in your book—might be ecstatic. Your relatives will buy books for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. It will be a thrill to sign the young readers’ books and say, “Remember this story, and tell it to your children.”
  • Best of all, your book will preserve a part of your family history—the most important part that portrays the qualities your family holds dear.

lottie-guttry-head-shotLottie Guttry is a former professor of literature and composition and is a writer, musician, and history buff. Lottie’s debut novel Alligator Creek is based on a family legend of her Civil War–era ancestors.

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