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Creating a Family Saga - FS12 - What Does It Mean to ‘fictionalize’ Historical Events?

Updated on November 12, 2017
Homeplace Series profile image

Dr. Bill's first passion is family history. His second is a passion for creating family saga, historical fiction stories that share it.

Rivers, trees and the sky inspire my stories

Fall trees along the Current River
Fall trees along the Current River

Why ‘fictionalize’ actual historical events and stories?

When I first started writing my family saga, historical fiction stories, in 1987, my only intent was to write ‘pure fiction.’ This continued when I began putting more time into creating my major stories in 2009 and beyond. The stories I was writing then were set in the 1987-1997-time period, in the past, but not the far distant past. The characters could certainly still be live in the current time, and I had just lived through the time period, so most facts that were background to the stories, in a modern setting, were well known. Even ‘news of the day’ was generally fairly familiar to most readers… no need to make up those things, if needed to complement the story lines. In fact, in my first novel, set in 1987, but released in 2010, “Back to the Homeplace,” a distinctive feature was a set of news headlines at the start of each chapter to remind readers of the worldly events of that time, that day, actually. They were straight news clips from the contemporary press.

In those early stories, in fact, I was especially careful to not include any reference to actual people, places or specific events. My concern at that time was to not write anything that could make a reader relate the story to an actual person, place or event. So, I did not set the story in my hometown, for example, not my home state. At the time, the ‘location’ didn’t even relate to an actual geographic spot, though, as the stories continued, the need for that information, perhaps, led me to my first ‘fictionalized’ account of actual places and times. This came about because I soon wanted to create (discover?) the back-story for the family in the original novel. The setting had been described generally as in the southern Missouri Ozarks, west of the Current River. I had never been there; I’d barely researched the area, except in a very broad-brush way.

To do justice to the stories I wanted to create, I realized I needed to do the research, and study the maps, in much more detail. While a lot of information was available, and I enjoyed doing the research, I soon realized that to ‘make the stories work,’ fictionalizing the place and time was the way to go. Basing the story-telling on actual facts, but, filling in gaps and ‘adjusting’ some details actually made the stories much more ‘believable’ without needing to constantly be pointing out where fiction varied from fact in the stories. For example, a part of the story required the valley where the town was set to be ten miles wide. In realizing the only possible location to make the story fit in the general location I desired, the valley was actually only 5-6 miles wide. I wanted to be in this location (currently a state park, actually) and be able to discuss the distance to and from existing actual towns that were growing up in the area, at the time (mid-1800s)…so, I simply ‘fictionalized’ the details of the valley and kept telling my stories. By the way, as you may have guessed, I began to ‘fictionalize’ quite a few other details - fill in gaps in my knowledge of the place and times - at the same time.

The stories are set west of the Current River in the Southern Missouri Ozarks

The Current River in Missouri
The Current River in Missouri

And what happened next?

First, I found I was really enjoying being able to expand my story telling through this technique by incorporating actual historical facts from the 19th Century into my stories. Second, I found that I really enjoyed doing the research and writing of ‘way-back’ historical times and places. Third, I recognized this was not really new to me. My wife and I had been, since 1995, seriously into our family history and genealogy. To do that right it was necessary to research and learn the social history of the time and place our ancestors lived, worked, and traveled. We each thorough enjoyed that, and I had started seriously blogging, so I was writing, about our discoveries, as well.

Therefore, why not combine the two? Additionally, HubPages had come into my life, and I found the 1250+ words in three segments and three photos format really fit my writing style. So, I created a new series of fiction stories: three brothers arrived in America, in the 1600s, on the east coast, at about the same places and times as my actual ancestors had arrived. What fun! The ‘Weston Wagons West’ series was begun, which is now approaching 100 episodes. These stories have followed the descendants of the those three Weston brothers down through the latter half of the 1600s, through the 1700s, and into the 1800s sharing stories of my Kinnick, Preston, and other lines as they went.

With each of these stories, I have included an Author’s Note, or similar statement, that emphasizes that these are fictional stories, with actual ancestors and events fictionalized, used in a fictitious way, based on actual historical records and family lore/tradition passed down through the generations, fictionalized. I recently included an example of how that worked. The actual history had different members of the family ‘going west’ at different times over a couple of years. The story flowed much better by having them essentially move together. Similarly, in such moves, motivation must often be provided fictitiously. In many cases, we knew the motivation for moves by the historical records. In others, we used the historical records, but fictionalized the motivation based on information about what others might have been doing during that time period. I do still have readers, despite the clear disclaimer, approach me with, ‘It didn’t really happen that way.’ Well, of course it didn’t. Not often, but they will always be there… ;-)

Horses alway draw my attention

Wild horses along the Current River in Missouri
Wild horses along the Current River in Missouri

Am I writing one set of family saga, historical fiction stories or more than one?

Since I am the author, and there are not an over abundance of readers, I have decided to declare that all of these stories are now part of “The Homeplace Saga.” This has been reinforced in recent months and years by the increasing number of times I see the word ‘homeplace’ being used in news stories about families and family history. Aren’t we really all part of the same big family, one big village? I think so. So, all my stories tie together, as well.

In one respect, they actually already do… that is sort of the ‘rest of the story,’ here. Those of you who have been faithful readers of my works already know this, but for any (very welcome) newbies, here is that story. The Lx set of episodes in the ‘Weston Wagons West’ series shares the Levi Weston story that interlocks with the Oak Springs based stories of the original “Back to the Homeplace” back story - the McDonalds, Truesdales, Pattons and Kings. These stories also provided an excellent bridge during the Civil War devastation of Oak Springs that had all residents evacuate; many to Jefferson City…where Levi’s family was based at the time. Very convenient, wasn’t it?

Finally, there is one other storyline set, now, in the ‘Weston Wagons West’ series that is pure fiction, not tied to my ancestor stores, the Hx stories. However, elements of these stories bring in portions of the actual movement across the state of Iowa of our (my wife and my) families to get to the rural Star community where we were each raised, on farms, four miles apart. I had started the Weston family stories with this one…but stopped, because I didn’t want to tell the ‘true story’ of the settlement of our area. It sat dormant for nearly 30 years…but is now a blossoming set of nearly 100 tales, through fictionalizing!! ;-)

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    • Homeplace Series profile imageAUTHOR

      William Leverne Smith 

      23 months ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you, Dora. Making history interesting can help people understand it. Little today is more important than understanding our history! ;-)

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      23 months ago from The Caribbean

      It's always helpful to understand an author's thought process. Thanks for sharing how the series originated, what made you decide on the direction it take, and so on. You do a very good job of making history interesting.

    • Homeplace Series profile imageAUTHOR

      William Leverne Smith 

      23 months ago from Hollister, MO

      Thank you, Bill. This is certainly something we share in common. Somedays are better than others, but each is an activity to enjoy! ;-)

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      23 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I find historical fiction great fun to write. I enjoy putting myself into another time and place, using real history as the backdrop, and, like you said, filling in gaps with fiction. You do it very well, my friend.


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