Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's the Story, Stupid!

As a writer of historical fiction, I’ve come to understand that the most important balancing act is the need to tell a great story versus the allegiance to the historical truth.  

Now, mind you, I’ve come to understand this after the fact; prior to writing ALICE I HAVE BEEN, I wasn’t aware of any great debate going on between writers of historical fiction.  After I wrote it, however, I timidly ventured out into that world and discovered that authors love to spend a lot of time discussing this very subject.    

I’m glad I wasn’t aware of this when I was writing; I might have chickened out.  For I have learned that authors and readers both can be very passionate concerning the subject of historical accuracy in fiction.
They can be very passionate about the methods of research, as well.  I’m often asked what kind of research I did for my novel about the life of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  Did I go to Oxford?  Read any of Alice’s letters or diaries? 

The answer to those questions would be no, and no.

Now, I did come to this with a fairly good knowledge of Victorian England; it’s an era I’ve always loved and I’ve read a lot of history, a lot of biography about it.  So I felt I had a good sense of the backdrop against which Alice’s story took place. 

But there did come a time, in the writing, when I started to worry because I’ve never been to Oxford, where most of Alice’s story takes place.  I can recall the exact moment in the manuscript; it’s a passage where Alice, as a young girl, goes into her garden, accompanied by Charles Dodgson, to a remote tree in the back where he has already taken his photography equipment.  I fretted and fretted; did they turn to the right, or did they turn to the left?  It seemed vitally important to me to know; I had a desperate need to hop on a plane to England and drive myself to Oxford to find out.

However, one thing prevented me, and that was the little fact that I had two children in college and had not yet sold the book.  I couldn’t justify the financial expenditure on a book that, for all I knew, might never see the light of day. 

But then I had one of those amazing flashes of inspiration that tired, broke authors often get.  I realized that if a reader was concerned about that kind of detail, I was doing something wrong.  The reader should be caught up in the story, the characters; not worrying about whether Alice turned left when she really should have turned right.

Finally I allowed myself to relax, to stop obsessing about the details.  Details are important but they’re not what the reader should remember in the end.  It’s the story and the characters that matter the most, even in historical fiction.

Another thing I did not do was read any of Alice Liddell’s own writing—her diaries or letters.  For starters, again—I was a neophyte.  I simply didn’t know how to go about finding them.
But I think that instinctively, I knew that reading her writing would stifle mine.  The reason I wrote this book in the first place was because she spoke to me so clearly after I saw the famous photograph of her at age 7, as a beggar girl. It was that photograph that inspired me initially; I was so mesmerized by the wise, worldly expression on her face.  

That expression was given voice by the Alice in the Lewis Carroll books, which I then reread.  That voice, that picture—they gave me my Alice, my heroine; the girl, then woman, whose story I wanted to tell.  And I’ve come to realize that diaries and letters are not always a true representation of a person.  Often diaries are just laundry lists of day-to-day activities.  Obviously Alice Liddell was a captivating person, yet the one slim biography of her even admitted that this muse of classic literature was not a gifted writer herself.  

I did not want the Alice I saw, the Alice I believe others saw, to be stifled; I did not want my own imagination and creativity to be influenced by her own perhaps uninspiring words. 

And so, through a combination of innocence and limited resources, I feel that I instinctively hit upon the combination that works for me as a historical novelist.  I look at the life of a person, focusing on some—not all—known facts that become the bones of my story. 

Then I allow my imagination and inspiration to take over, and I hang the fiction on those factual bones.  Somehow, then, I end up with a novel.  Somehow, I find the balance between fact and fiction against a historical backdrop.  

I’d still love to go to Oxford, of course.

But I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep if I find out Alice Liddell did, indeed, turn right instead of left.  And somehow, I don’t think she’d mind, either, if I got it wrong. 

Melanie Benjamin is the author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, the story of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND.  Available in hardcover now, it will be released in paperback in December.   Her second historical novel will be published by Random House in August 2011.  Melanie also blogs at the Huffington Post; you can visit her at her website at  


  1. Melanie, what a great post! I'm dying to read ALICE I HAVE BEEN, and I love knowing the story behind it. I admire that you didn't want to know every little detail about Alice's life (or, at least, the details available to historians) and let your imagination fly. Btw, were your ears burning yesterday? I had lunch with the fab Judy Merrill Larsen, and your name came up. I wish we could have a big Girlfriends Book Club spa weekend and all meet one of these days! ;-)

  2. Hi, Melanie! I love this (and, as you know, LOVED the book!). And your line, "Then I allow my imagination and inspiration to take over, and I hang the fiction on those factual bones" is so true for all writers, I think.

    I also second what Susan said (although she's the fab one!). We definitely need to at least gather all the midwestern Girlfriends and have a big slumber party!

  3. Oooh, how interesting! I've often wondered how authors go about writing fiction concerning real people--fascinating, especially how you decided not to read her letters.

    Off to order Alice I Have Been.

  4. Why yes, my ears were burning, but I figured it was a hot flash!

    A convo of Girlfriends would be fab!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. oops... didn't mean to delete myself. Here's my comment again :)

    Thank you Melanie! You just totally opened up a whole new world for me with that one post!! :)

  7. Thank you so much for that post! I love history and politics and read historical literature all the time. I'd even thought about taking a stab at it myself but was so intimidated by that very question - how much research is enough research, what if I don't know absolutely EVERY detail available, and just how much fiction is allowed in historical fiction. Your take is very honest and refreshing.

  8. What fascinating background information. I do hope you do get to go to Oxford one day.

  9. Nadine, I always tell myself that facts are important to establish a setting, but the biggest asset I bring to my writing is my imagination. Not my ability to research!

    I hope so too, Karin! Maybe someday...

  10. I LOVED Lewis Carroll when I was younger!! I've heard many good things about ALICE I HAVE BEEN, and now I'm definitely picking it up. :)

  11. Loved this back-story... and what an amazing photo! The expression on her face IS so wise and worldly, despite her circumstances

  12. It's funny, b/c I'm going on my second research trip for my book next week. On one hand, I understand the money constraints, on the other, if Oxford is calling you, I'm hoping you can find a way to get there. Either way, good luck!

  13. SUCH an interesting post. I think it's something we all get caught up in-- how much research is necessary, how much research am I doing to procrastinate?! It's a really fine line.

    I, too, am of the make-it-up school, but recently I found myself in the Hamptons, where my third novel is set. Just being out there, seeing the people walk around, breathing the air, completely inspired me.

  14. Melanie, so interesting! you DESERVE a trip to Oxford now! I did lots of things backwards as a new writer--for instance, dragging my hub to the Dominican Republic twice to research a golf novel that was never published. Of course the trips were great fun anyway!

    These sound like books to look forward to!

  15. Sometimes ignorance is bliss! Especially with opinions about writing. The story vs. historical accuracy debate can get quite heated . . . I've decided to stay out of it myself. Mostly. I hope you make it to Oxford one day!

  16. I can only imagine the struggles you go through when writing fiction about a real person. As someone who was trained in journalism, I have to push myself to let go of what happened in real life or what I think is realistic & go for dramatic even when I'm writing about made up people. Brava to you!