I’ve always been suspicious of films that purported to be “based on a true story.” That seems like a huge cheat to me. You get the advantage of viewers marveling that what they’re watching really happened while getting to change absolutely anything you want. When I started writing fiction, though, I began to appreciate the notion of “basing” something on a true story a little more.
One of the adages novelists always hear when starting out is “write what you know.” The notion behind this is that one will be better equipped to write honest prose if one is working with material with which one is familiar. This is sound advice. However, it doesn’t address what one is to do if what one knows is not particularly interesting. I’m not saying I’ve lived a boring life. For the most part, I can stay awake while living it. I’m not sure that anyone would want to pay to hear about it, though. This is where “based on a true story” comes in.
My novel The Journey Home is based on a true story. It has two sources of inspiration: my parents’ sixty-plus year romance, and the years my mother spent pining for my father after he died. My parents were as together as any couple I’ve ever met, as inseparable as two people can be while still navigating through the world. After my father died, my mother went through various stages of emptiness before Alzheimer’s took her away. Their relationship was inspirational to observe, but it was inspirational in its ordinariness. Watching them catch each other up on the day over coffee and cookies was an important lesson in communication, especially because of the way they spoke to each other – but great drama it was not. Watching my mother talk about my father as though he were still there was heart-clenching, but only because I knew the two of them.
What this meant was that I was going to have to “base” the novel on their relationship rather than write about them directly. This was fine; my real goal with this novel was to write about the nature of home and what it means to different people. So, I imagined a sexier and more dramatic past for my parents. I also imagined a much more idealized descent into illness for my mother – the one I wished she had as opposed to the one I witnessed. I made their son far more complicated and emotionally wrought than I tend to be, and I added a third storyline that had nothing to do with them at all. In the end, I had something that paid tribute to them while only being marginally biographical.