For many years I’ve wanted and needed to write a story based on some of the things that happened in my childhood in Northern Ireland. These things either happened to me, to members of my family, or I was a (way too young) witness to some truly heart wrenching events.
I’ve struggled with bringing this story into the light of day in many ways, but one particularly interesting conundrum which might apply to your writing is, should I write my story as a childhood/family memoir, or as a novel, as fiction? There seemed to be strong reasons for both options: I feel that this story has merit and universal appeal, and will make a strong compelling read, but I don’t want to embarrass or hurt anyone involved in the story. However I was a child and no doubt missed on many other events and nuances; my take on the situation would undoubtedly differ from say, an adult who lived through the same experiences.
Added to these questions are my own preferences; I prefer to read novels, which can explore wider themes and questions, than a “that happened to me” type memoir. Also, another personal perception, I feel the memoir market may not be right for my story, and also that your story would have to be very “out there” to compete in the memoir genre, filled as it is with some truly gut-wrenching stories.
One of my all time favourites novels helped me reach that decision; I am enormously influenced, in writing And The Buntings Flew, by the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Like Purdey, the narrator of my novel, Scout was also a small girl caught up in some life changing events. Many elements of Scout’s story were based on Lee’s childhood and family, but then many events in the book are fiction, and are used to explore the themes of courage, injustice, prejudice and innocence.
Adair Lara at Writer’s Digest explores this subject and makes some really great suggestions for making the decision: novel or memoir; in the end I decided that my story would best be written as a novel, after considering the following factors, which seemed most pertinent to my story:
1. Did everything you want to include actually happen?
A memoir is a non-fiction story, and autobiographical to some extent. The events described in my story all happened, but I have changed the denouement, although it is true in spirit. However I will be taking those key events and amending them to support the key themes of my novel. There are also a couple of characters who are amalgams of several real people, so again I can’t say that they are “real”.
2. Will my family, and people mentioned in the book, be angry/hurt/want to hunt me down?
I hope my novel will be enormously successful, allow me to devote myself to writing full-time and launch me to international stardom. Or do I? What if in doing so I hurt those closest to me, or even, unlikely though it might be, gave them uncomfortable publicity? My story is based in 1970’s Troubles torn Northern Ireland, and focuses on a particular area of the city. Our family name would be recalled by some. Terrible things happened all around us, every day, and as noted above, my story is told through the prism of a child’s eyes. Even if I changed names, people might recognise the story, certainly people close to us would, and whether they are hurt or not, I might find my authorial hand is stayed, with regards to some of the unpalatable details I want to tell. Also, it’s a long time ago, and I don’t want to drag up any ancient history for anyone. My story deals with the ordinary human condition in extraordinary times and places, it is not a finger pointing exercise or a political manifesto. Paradoxically, I can deal with the subject matter more honestly, by fictionalising it.
3. Is the Story Credible as a Novel?
Counter intuitively, I think that the more “out there” and bizarre your tale is, the less likely it is to read well as fiction. The phrase “fact is stranger than fiction” sums this up well. A memoir is probably the better vehicle for a story that is off the wall, overly dramatic (or has overly dramatic characters!) and relies on huge coincidences (as life can). Although my story is certainly not “ordinary”, it happened to the backdrop of well publicised events and political situations, and I think that nothing in the story lacks credibility, if viewed from that perspective.
4. Am I a Reliable Witness?
The key events in my first novel (I hope it may become a loosely connected series) occurred when I was between five and eight years old, although in the novel timeline the events are compressed into a period of one year. Although the events are very vivid in my mind, I will certainly have remembered many things imperfectly, or misunderstood actions by the grown ups around me. Adults are after all pretty incomprehensible. So some of my recollections of events, people, even places will be incorrect or incomplete, seen through a child’s eyes.
Although many memoirs have been written from childhood recollections, I thought that my story would not be best served by being presented as fact. The uncertainty generated by a child narrator is a great device for my novel: although I have tried to research to make sure I make no glaring errors, at the heart of my story is a child, whose understanding is still developing, although it’s safe to say that Purdey is an old soul in a young body and hopefully thus not an unreliable narrator! So part of the attraction of having a child narrator in a novel format is to add to that uncertainty and ambiguity – can we be sure that she is always correct in her interpretation of events and people?
I would love to hear your thoughts and how you made the decision to write either a memoir or a novel.