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Writing the Truth

In a recent episode of Fresh Air Weekend, there was an interview with author Thomas Mallon, renowned essayist and historical fiction novelist. It was a most fascinating interview, focused on highlights of his career, an article in The New Yorker Magazine, and the recent release of his novel Up With The Sun  A story about  Dick Kallman, who was an up-and-coming actor in the fifties and sixties, a closeted gay man for much of his life. Kallman had faded into obscurity until his murder in 1980.

Here's what Booklist said about Up With the Sun,  "Another superb novelization of real life . . . Fluidly written with well-realized characters, the novel is great gossipy fun to read. Film and theater buffs will be delighted."

In response to the question of whether the characters he creates have to be real people who interacted with historical figures; or whether what he puts into the mouths of historical figures is credible, he said that the reader should always remember “this is fiction first and historical second.”

So, yes. He makes up people and he makes up dialogue. 

Mallon’s answer stuck with me after the interview ended, and I realized that’s a truth that many of us who are writing stories based on real life need to keep uppermost in our minds as we sift through our realities and figure out how to craft a novel from past experiences; either our own or people we know.

Currently, I’m working with a client who is writing a novel based on some experiences she had during the 80s as a young adult, and the first read-through of her ms raised the suspicion that she’s attempting to closely adhere to things that really happened. Perhaps even keeping much of the dialogue the same as what people said.

My client is having a hard time stepping away from that inclination. Her book so far is a mix of memoir, fiction, and autobiography that is struggling to find it’s way to becoming a novel. 

That’s pretty much where I was when I was writing Evelyn Evolving. I remember how hard it was for me to step away from the actual facts and circumstances of my mother’s life when I was writing the book and figure out what to do with what I knew, and what I didn’t know, about events that shaped her. If it hadn't been for the assistance of Kathryn Craft, a former contributor to this blog, and a terrific developmental editor, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to sort the mess out.

Sometimes even editors need editors. 😊

To clarify Mallon’s comment about the balance of fiction and fact, I’m sure he didn’t mean that in writing any kind of historical fiction we shouldn’t be true to what is historically accurate. Well-documented situations and things that happened in reality should always be factually correct when we include them in our books, and careful research is so important for that accuracy.

Mell also shared how he approaches the dialogue in his novels, especially words he wants to give a real person. He related how he gets glimpses of a person's personality from interviews and letters, or other historical documents, then comes up with dialogue that he thinks fits, paraphrasing much of it unless he can find a direct quote.

Using that same approach to discerning a personality, then imagining how that person would speak, the dialogue we write in historical novels can be close to what the person might have said at that time, at that place, but it doesn't have to be exact wordage. 

Late in the interview, Mallon said, “fiction trumps history.” With that, he came full circle back to his earlier comment that readers should always remember that historical novels are fiction. While the books are based on some true historical facts and situations, much of what is between the pages of the book is a story that was created by the author. A novel is much different than a history book. 

It’s up to us as authors, to make sure we give the readers the best creation we can. 

Readers and writers, do you have any suggestions to add to this? What are some of your favorite historical novels?

Maryann Miller is a novelist, editor, and sometimes an actress. She has written a number of mysteries, including the critically-acclaimed Seasons Mystery Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk, work jigsaw puzzles, color, and quilt.



  1. The Civil War is a great example of using that period to create a story around it, like Gone with the Wind. Of course Mitchell made it seem like all the slaves were happy and part of the family, a whitewashing, if you will, but mostly we remember Scarlett and Rhett. There are hundreds, thousands of books and movies that used a certain historical time period to tell the story, or fictionalized true story, like Schindler's List with the Holocaust as a background, and in doing so, offer a history lesson, maybe even create a curiosity to learn more. Is that fiction trumping history or history trumping fiction?

    Great post, Maryann, and by the way, I loved Evelyn Evolving.

    1. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Polly. I also thought that Mellon's comment could be turned either way. Just a matter of perspective as we write. And I'm pleased that you loved my book.

  2. I find an intriguing connection between fiction and fact. A story may be the fictionalizing of an actual event, past or present. While such a tale will likely include true events, other details may be purely fictitious. However, they need to also be potentially possible. Characters need to be realistic for the reader to relate to them and want to know their story. As a reader, I want to be drawn into a scene, root for the protagonist, despise the villain even if I understand what motivates him or her, and feel emotionally a part of the story. I want to hug the heroine when she is hurting; I want to smack the antagonist (verbally at least) when he/she has caused her pain. I do agree that we need to know or research the dialogue (and culture) at the time and locale of the book. For example, my Tormented Tango novel features a Hispanic family in a prominent role. The man speaks English with some effort, but for most of the story his wife does not. Because I spent 5 years working with a Spanish group, I have some idea of how new English speakers use our language and structure their sentences. Hopefully, I got it close to right. Great post, Maryann. Thomas Mallon definitely got it right.


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