Monday, January 6, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks - Bringing Real-Life to Fiction

I had the wonderful opportunity to go to the movies before Christmas at watch the much-awaited Disney movie, Saving Mr. Banks. Needless to say, the simple awareness that Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks were the main actors was enough to spark my excitement, but add to it the story behind the ‘creation’ of my much loved Mary Poppins movie and I was all –in!

Disney hand-picked the info it wanted to use - and then refined its fiction to make a good movie-story, because there are plenty of real-life elements to P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins) that wouldn’t have given the warm-oozy feeling we get by the end. And in the Mary Poppins’ books, Mary probably wouldn’t have been quite as lovable on the screen as she is in the Disney version.

I’m doing research for my new WIP right now and I’m watching my collection of Christy  movies. The t.v. movie series inspired by Catherine Marshall’s classic books does the same thing. It takes real-life and glazes it with enough fiction to bring out a great story. That’s why the series and Saving Mr. Banks are labeled as ‘based on true events’ or ‘based on a true story’ – but they aren’t biographical. It’s adding the fictional twist to a true tale.

My WIP is based on a family story of a young male school teacher coming to the backwoods of Appalachia and falling in love with one of the young women there. I take tales from my family history to deepen the canvass of the story, but there are PLENTY of elements I have to fictionalize. I have four other stories from my family's history which I hope to someday fictionalize, but how do I know which ones will work?

Here are a few tips on how to take real-life and transform it into good fiction?

1.       Passion – is there are story worth telling? Let's face it, most of our regular lives aren't that interesting to place in the plot of a book, but sometimes we come across a story worth telling. Careful consideration of the 'true events' and how those events can be crafted into a novel is important to consider.

2.       Protect the real-life characters - When you spin 'real life' into fiction, things can get a little sticky with characters and stories. To keep Uncle Joe, Great Aunt Marge, or whoever else's decendents from making your life pretty tough, we need to use pseudonyms. It's not difficult when you're creating characters from scratch, but using a true story that can be identified by others carries special care with it. Make sure the names and very specific details are changed for fiction.

old school early 1930s
3.       Relatability - Just like with any good story, readers need to be able to relate to the characters, their goals, and the journey of the story. Are the people in the real-life story relatable? Can we make them relatable? Is the journey one of universal understanding? (or at least does it have a broad audience for understanding)? Many of us can't relate to being a school-teacher in the backwoods of the Smokies at the turn-of-the-century, but in Christy we can relate to her insecurities, her passion to help the children around her, the struggle to decide between two good men in her life, or the desire to prove herself.

4.       Truth/Message - Good stories need heart - a purpose. Ones gleaned from real-life need that too. Just because Uncle Ralph was a soldier in World War I and came back to tell the tale - doesn't mean HIS story is a novel. Does it have a message? Does it hold all of those other wonderful elements of a good story - conflict, goals, character growth?? What's the point of the story?

picture of some of my ancestors in 1909
My historical WIP is about preconceived notions and dreaming beyond your circumstances.

5.       Don’t let Real-Life events stifle your fictional story - If Disney had gotten all the details right in Saving Mr. Banks, it would have broken the HEA mold Disney is so well-known for - so instead it kept some fictional aspects (or glazed with real-life with a whole lot of faerie dust) to make their story work. Novelizations do this quite often - that's one reason the book is fiction instead of nonfiction. The true events become our guide, our inspiration, but then we fill in the rest with our own creativity. Now if you're dealing with wildly publicized 'real events', you have to dance with more care because you don't want your story to be discredited, but again...your story is fiction  so it gives much more margin for creativity. :-)

  Let's Talk: Have you ever read or written a book that was based on a true story? What did you like best about it? What's something you felt could have been strengthened?

   Leave a comment and tell us whether you want your name in the drawing for The Writer's Digest Dialogue writing book by Gloria Kempton!


Joanne Sher said...

This is such a delicate balance, and you have shown it expertly, my friend. Fabulous post!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I have a couple of ideas from real life, but am too afraid to even begin. I would have to change up alot for a happy ending needed for a book. ;)

Casey said...

I have been warned by family members (dad's brother to be specific--hehe) that if ANYTHING about their lives even remotely resembling them, shows up in one of my novels, that will be a very sad day for our family. LOL!

I loved your comment about how we can't always relate to the circumstances, but we can relate to the emotions of those circumstances. Good reminder for me! :)

Jeanne Takenaka said...

Loved this post, Pepper. And the picture of your ancestors. :)

I like the idea of looking at the relatability of a story, a universal aspect of it, and using this to focus my story. Great idea, Pepper!

I liked Christy, both the book and the movie. :)

Loved this: "The true events become our guide, our inspiration, but then we fill in the rest with our own creativity."

I haven't tried fictionalizing a true event, but I've got a folder of ideas to use. Someday. :)

Pepper said...

Thanks!! I'd never thought of what is entailed until I started this post :-)

Pepper said...

I have quite a few of those in my family history too :-) LOL

Pepper said...

There are some things in my family history I will NEVER write about because of the emotional 'heat' behind it! Okay...Beth Vogt would laugh at my door marked 'never' so I might need to say...I'd have to do a WHOLE LOT of fictionalizing to get it to work. :-)

Pepper said...

I think one of my favorite words right now, Jeanne, is 'someday' :-) I have a LOT of 'someday' stories just waiting for the time and opportunity.

Amy Leigh Simpson said...

Great post, Pep! I haven't tackled any writing based on actual events. I do, however, like to weave bits and pieces of "characters" I know into my stories. Or even use amusing tidbits, embarrassments, quirks from my own life that can enhance personality on paper. :) Love these suggestions. Especially about writing with heart and purpose. At the end of the story I want to walk away with something, I want it to impress on me if not change me. You don't realize how important and even complicated that is until you read a book that leaves you utterly bereft, empty, and unmoved.

Angie Dicken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Pepper...I will have to come back to it again and again!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

You are so clever, Pepper! Such great tips. And I HAVE to see Saving Mr.Banks!!

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Casey - I've had two weird cases of life imitating art. In the first case, I started writing about a certain event and then a year later, the same thing happened to a family member. In the other instance, I found out the exact same thing I wrote about had actually happened to a family member years earlier, and I hadn't known - it didn't come out until well down the track. Kind of eerie!

Because that book is still unpublished, it puts me in a pickle! Now it will seem like I'm basing my story on those people, but I really wasn't. The events were both very rare and unusual though, so I'm afraid it's going to look that way! :/