Monday, June 30, 2008

Am I On the Right Track?

I want to start by thanking everyone who was kind enough to give me advice on my family history dilemma. Chery, footnoteMaven, Wendy, Apple, Lillie, Bob, Diane, Carol, and Bronwyn... thank you very much! I really appreciate your thoughtful comments. You guys are the best!

I had a big huge smile on my face after reading Chery and fM's comments. I have never heard of the term "creative nonfiction" before but it turns out that both of the novels I wrote for NaNoWriMo (2005 & 2006) seem to be just that. So I guess that means I've already written my family histories and can take the rest of the summer off. :-D


Actually, I'm not kidding about my two novels being "creative nonfiction". I think they really may be just that. I wasn't aware that the term/concept existed when I wrote my novels or that's what I would have called them. I am going to order the book fM recommended (Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction ) to learn more about this genre of writing before I make any other plans. It would be so cool to use the novel I've written about my Lipa family as a part of the official family history. Perhaps I could just add a few chapters to what I've already got and save myself a lot of writing. Wow! I am so excited about that idea!

But I don't want to get ahead of myself here. I'm going to do some more reading and research about creative nonfiction before I decide if that's what I want to do with my family history. Maybe those of you who are more familiar with the concept of creative nonfiction can let me know if I'm on track with my thinking. Here's a synopsis of what my 2nd novel, Hear the Linden Tree was about...

Setting: Late 1880s in Detroit's east side Polish community

The main character is Ludwika Lipa (my great grandmother). She's a member of a local church (real church) at a very turbulent time in it's history (true). The story has Ludwika developing a fondness/infatuation with the charasmatic and controversial pastor of the church (real person) and at the time of those developing feelings she experiences flashbacks to her life as a young girl back in Poland and her first infatuation with none other than the lord of the manor where her family lived and worked (real person). Meanwhile, the church and the pastor go through several violent and even deadly episodes (true) resulting in the excommunication of the entire parish (true).

The novel has high drama and passion, violence (but not grusomness) and sexuality. The church related historical events were all real. My ancestors were all real. The part I took the liberty of writing is the plot that put my ancestors into the events of the day. I invented diaglogue, feelings, and relationships that were all plausible. I put them in places and situations where they could really have been but I have no evidence suggesting that they actually were (like among hundreds of protesting rioters or among thousands attending a given Mass). The story took place over several years and all the while I included real life events that happened to Ludwika (birth of children, death and marriage of family members, etc.) and real events that happened in the city of Detroit at the time.

I always thought that if you invented any elements of a story it was considered fiction. So I've always thought of my novels as historical fiction. But truthfully, there's much more truth than fiction to my stories. Of course I have no idea if my great grandmother had a crush on the charasmatic and controversial pastor of her parish in Detroit or the lord of the manor her family served in Poland. I'm not trying to minimize or in any way diminish the fiction of the story. It's there and you can't miss it. But I was very, very careful to not alter the times/dates/places of actual historical events or the known details of my Lipa family history.

So what do you think? Does my novel fit with the creative nonfiction genre?

(I know I'm going to catch heck from die hard historians on the idea of introducing even a hint of fiction into a family history, so go ahead and let me have it... but try to be kind in the way you deliver your criticism ;-)


  1. My opinion is: Yes, it's "creative non-fiction." No, it's not "family history."

    I desire sources and citations with family history. I want the author to tell me whenever there is speculation. Primarily this is because the only reason I would read someone else's family history is if I suspected it intersected with my own.

    With creative non-fiction I'm less concerned with the details, and my main concern is whether or not I'm reading an interesting story I know was based on factual circumstances.

    However, I suspect you can start with what you wrote for those novels, and start slashing (or noting) everything that was speculative, and cutting all the dialogue that was fictionalized. What will be left will be your family history.

    It should be a lot easier to cut from what you have written than to write it from scratch.

  2. I think I would just go through and source all the factual stuff and then have a detailed introduction stating what is not factual. Then you can go ahead and keep it all, or at least most of it.

    I'd actually be really interested in reading your NaNoWriMo novel. Sounds right up my alley as far as genre goes.

    (I've done NaNoWriMo too. Crazy stressful but so much fun too.)

  3. Jasia,
    You might want to read the definition of creative nonfiction at

    My understanding is that if you make anything up (such as the romance), the work is fiction, not creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction simply writes facts in a style more like fiction than traditional nonfiction.

    David Bowles and I looked into this quite a bit when I was editing his first book. He would have liked to call his books creative nonfiction, but after a fair amount of research, we determined that they didn't fit the criteria because he invented some aspects of the story.

  4. Hi Jasia,

    I'm happy I was able to make you smile!

    It sounds as though your novel would be too much fiction for a family history, especially since you do not want to create relationships where non probably existed. When dealing with creative nonfiction, one must take care to preserve the integrity of people we do not know. What I was picturing is a toned down version: "these are my ancestors, they lived here at this time, here were the social and economic issues they had to face, and daily life MIGHT have been like this, and they might have felt this..." It could also mean: "here are George and Anna; they lived through the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906," and then weave a probably story about what it might have been like, without actually inventing personality traits, relationships, etc. It's hard to explain, but there's a difference between supposing what an ancestor might have lived through, as opposed to inventing a life for them.

    For example, I know for a fact that my Norwegian great great grandfather departed Bergen for America in May 1866. I can add color to that event by writing something like:

    Bertina's husband, Baard, stood at the railing and steadied his pipe in silence, dark puffs of smoke catching the breeze from under the brim of his wool cap. As he watched the long, straight line of the Bryggen grow more distant, he thought about the direction their future, and his responsibility, would take.

    I know he was on that ship, but I don't know if he actually smoked a pipe or not, though most Norwegian men did in the 1860s. And, I'm not certain he was even wearing a cap, but it's a good bet. I am simply adding some personal feeling or visuals to a known event, but I would never attribute morals or consequential actions without just cause or proof.

    Hope this helps... Chery

  5. Sounds like you've already received answers that are better than what I'd have to offer. I would be interested in reading the Linden Tree.

    I would start from scratch on your family history but certainly pull the facts of the times from the research you have already done.