Turning Family History into a Historical Novel: Writing Tips

Guest Post by Pamela Pan –

Families mirror the time they inhabit like water droplets reflecting an ocean. Family history, therefore, provides rich resources for writers. However, interesting vignettes about your family don’t automatically translate into engrossing novels. The following are insights I have gleaned through my own writing process.

Determine Who Your Main Character Should Be

It sounds easy, but it’s not. Family histories can be complex, with many fascinating figures competing to become captivating protagonists. Bear in mind that the person with the most interesting life doesn’t necessarily make the best main character.

My initial title for the debut novel I’m polishing was Grandpa’s Return. My grandpa had an extraordinary and heartbreaking story. He was a high-ranking Nationalist officer during WWII in China. After college, he gave up his future career to fight the Japanese invaders and became an important figure in the country. He was captured by the communists in 1949 and sentenced to death as a political prisoner—a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1979, after 30 years behind bars, when Deng Xiaoping came to power.

My grandpa’s experiences embodied twentieth century Chinese history, and that’s what I thought I would capture. But after twenty chapters, I found I was still writing about my grandma. She held the family together in the decades when Grandpa was away. She raised their two children alone. She steered everyone to safety when Japanese soldiers marched into her village with machine guns. She rebuilt their home after the invaders burned it down. She pulled the family through deprivation after the war.

In retrospect, choosing Grandma as the main character was inevitable. I knew her better. She lived with us and helped to raise me and my brother. Even when I set out to write about Grandpa, my heart and my mind gravitated toward her.

I titled my novel Eight-sided Mountain, after the real mountain near Grandma’s home that played an important role in the story. The mountain became a symbol of Grandma: strong, resourceful, and unyielding in the face of adversity.               

And there stands the first lesson. Unless you are drawn to unlikable protagonists, opt for a family member who touches you in profound ways and with whom you feel a deep resonance to be your main character.

Interview

While digging into documents is hugely important in writing a historical novel, and I have done plenty of my share, the research method that helped me the most is the interview. In fact, it was my conversation with Grandma’s cousin that launched my current project. Ten years ago, I took my two children to visit him in China. By then, Grandma had passed away for more than a decade. The cousin, in his late eighties, recounted how when he was seven, the Japanese invaded his village and caught him in a rice field. They kicked him with their boots and smacked him with their rifles until he lost consciousness. They thought he had died and moved on to their next target.

“Do you know how your grandma, your mom, and your uncle survived the invasion?” he asked.

I had no idea. His question sparked my first interview. Had I not visited him, I wouldn’t have known about this part of Grandma’s history. She had never mentioned it—she hardly talked about any part of her past. Raised as a lady, modesty etched in her bones, she might have deemed her former life unworthy of mention or disliked boasting. Or perhaps the experiences were so horrendous she dreaded reliving them.

I conducted long interviews with my uncle and my mom. These interviews formed the foundation of my novel. Many of the details cannot be found in history books—a tremendous advantage of interviews.

While historical records afford glimpses into the past, they are open to all interested readers. In several stories about Taiwan in the 1960-70s, I came across strikingly familiar descriptions of the 228 Incident, the anti-government uprising in 1947. The details, though varied in wording, bore too much resemblance to be coincidental. Shared reliance on common sources likely produced the similarities.

Interviews allow writers to sidestep such pitfalls. Human lives and memories are vast and diverse, much less likely to coincide with a historian’s descriptions. Furthermore, interviews often reveal specific details that historians may deem unimportant but are nonetheless golden nuggets for novelists, such as what people can buy with forty yuan and where the buttons are sewed in a jacket.

Another benefit of interviews is you get a sense of how people speak. Your great uncle might favor a particular term or a tone that marked his personality. Incorporating such details brings your characters to life.

Focus on Developing a Good Story

One challenge of basing a story on family history is that you may feel obligated to stick to the facts. Fear creeps in when you add fictitious details or events. Your family members might also say, after reading your descriptions, “That’s not true!”

But remember your genre—it’s fiction, not memoir. You are free to adapt, change, and make up dialogue and conflicts to create engaging plots. Your family history provides a springboard. Where you leap and land depends on the paths you want to tread, or where your characters direct you to take them.

I have felt the tension between factual accuracy and creative freedom. I started the project as a memoir, driven by a desire to share my family history. However, midway through, I switched to fiction. The shift allowed me to create events and characters that didn’t exist in real life but which contributed depth, richness, and engagement. Opting for fiction also spared me from hearing relatives say, “That’s not how my great aunt looks and acts.”

For me, writing a novel based on my family history has proved to be a challenging and yet infinitely fulfilling endeavor. The above methods assisted me in this daunting journey. I hope they help you as well.

Pamela Pan is an English professor at San Joaquin Delta College where she teaches and does research on reading, writing, and literature. She has a Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Davis, a master’s degree in Bilingual/ESL Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. 

Pamela writes historical fiction, short stories, essays, and poems. Her work has been published in various magazines and anthologies. Pamela’s debut historical novel Eight-sided Mountain was set in a rural village in Zhejiang province, China, during WWII. Website: pamelapan.com

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