Real People in Historical Fiction
In the Montmaray Journals series, there are a lot of real, historical people interacting with my made-up characters. This presented a bit of a challenge to me, as a writer. Firstly, I needed to know a LOT about the real people I'd decided to add to my story. I had to know what they looked like, how old they were, what their nicknames were, how they spoke, what their political beliefs were, who they hung out with . . . which meant doing lots of reading. If they (or their friends) had published their diaries or written their memoirs, I read those. I read biographies of them (most of them were really famous, so they each had at least one biography). I examined photographs of them and (in the case of Winston Churchill) listened to recordings of their speech. I read newspaper and magazine articles about them so I could get an idea of what other people at the time thought of them. I also needed to know exactly where they were at key points of my story (for example, I couldn't have Sophie FitzOsborne meeting Kathleen Kennedy at an English house party if Kathleen was actually in New York at the time).
Even with all that information, I still had to make some things up, but I tried to keep it consistent with the known facts. For example, I don't know for sure how John F. Kennedy would have reacted if he'd met fictional Veronica FitzOsborne at a cocktail party – but the facts of his life suggest he would have flirted with her, as he did with most beautiful women he encountered, and he'd probably have asked her out to dinner at some stage, so that's what happens in The FitzOsbornes in Exile.
There is another problem with using real people in fiction. What if they don't like what you've said about them? What if they sue you and your publisher for defamation, and your books get removed from bookshops and destroyed? (Yes, this has actually happened to some Australian authors.) However, people can't sue for defamation if they're dead, and luckily for me, nearly all the real people in the Montmaray Journals died a long time ago. I think the only real people in the books who are still alive are the Queen (see photo of her at left, aged about thirteen, with her little sister, Princess Margaret and her grandmother, Queen Mary) and the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, and I'm pretty sure that neither of them has read any of my books (especially as the books aren't published in the UK). In any case, these two people are only mentioned in passing and I don't say anything bad about them. They might not like what I wrote about their relatives (such as Princess Margaret and Diana Mosley), but a) their relatives are dead and b) anything I wrote about their relatives was based on previously published information and I kept a record of all my sources. Even so, I checked with my editor and she checked with the legal department at her publishing house. Publishers take this sort of thing very seriously.
If you were writing a story with real people in it – which real people would you use?
Next week: Why the Australian and North American editions of my books are different