What Memoirists Can Learn from Historical Novelists

Amid stacks of century-old photos in a display box can be seen one of a bearded man in a military uniform and one of a besuited teenage boy in a domestic living room.
Photo by Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

Today’s post is by author and book coach Susanne Dunlap (@susanne_dunlap).

At first glimpse, memoir and historical fiction may seem worlds apart. But many of the decisions historical novelists have to make to create a compelling narrative overlap with memoir more than you’d think—especially for writers of biographical historical fiction.

Both genres deal with events that really happened and people who actually existed. And writers of both genres have to make decisions that somehow mold reality into a story with a shape, an arc, and meaning.

It all starts with the question of time.

Timelines and story arcs

Time is at the foundation of the entire experience of reading a book. A novel or a memoir is consumed by the reader over a span of time that sometimes expands, sometimes contracts depending on the balance of scene and summary. A reader invests time in the reading of the book, and it has to be worthwhile for them.

It’s your responsibility as a writer to control that passage of time, and it starts with identifying your story’s timeline, finding the optimal beginning and end that will create the satisfying arc that doesn’t exist in history or in life.

To do that involves not just deciding what to include, but what to exclude.

But how do you decide that? How do you know what timespan is going to work best for your memoir?

Before asking that, ask yourself this: Why are you writing this book? What are you trying to say? What is your point? Writers of both fiction and memoir use the particular to illuminate the universal. Underlying your experience is a message you want to convey, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.

An example: You’re a cancer survivor. You could choose to focus on the period that led up to diagnosis and the choices you made, if you want to make the point that patients have autonomy over those decisions. Or you could choose to cover the treatment, and share your journey and the ways you found to manage the physical and emotional effects, to convey a message of hope and solidarity with other cancer patients.

A memoir that tries to cover the entire experience risks being unfocused and failing to make a point, which could leave a reader wondering why they spent all that time reading your book.

A historical novelist, similarly, might choose not to focus on the most well-known part of the historical figure’s life, instead opting to illuminate that person’s early journey, to show how circuitous and full of obstacles such a route to fame can be, or to foreground the contribution of a spouse, a parent, or a sibling.

Once you have a general idea of your timeline, you then have to decide on the exact moment your memoir begins and ends. The precise scene that gets the story underway for the reader, and the moment at which you have reached the end of that arc in a way that feels satisfying and connects back to the beginning.

I’ll use an example from my own work, The Portraitist: A Novel of Adelaïde Labille-Guiard. I chose as the starting moment the day my 18th-century artist first exhibits her work—and discovers her better-connected, more beautiful, and younger arch rival. The book ends at the only documented meeting between the two women at a dinner party in 1802. They have both changed by then, been tested by the events of the French Revolution and responded to them in different ways.

The plot thickens

The word “plot” comes freighted with associations for readers and writers. At its simplest, it’s what happens. Not just what happens, though, but why it happens. While there are plot-heavy narratives such as thrillers, mysteries, and romance, even the most literary of novels, or the most introspective of memoirs, has a plot on some level. Its inner logic is the same as any story, where scenes are linked by action > reaction > decision > consequence.

That means you have to excavate the choices you made and the actions you took, how you reacted to events and people, and the consequences you had to live with—and do it all in a way that has inner logic. Just narrating a chunk of your life can end up creating a memoir that feels episodic and static. You want your reader to keep asking, “What happens next?” to be compelled to keep reading.

Making that logic clear drives a reader through your story. As soon as you inject something arbitrary, something that is outside the logic that is heading toward your ultimate point, you risk losing the reader. It’s what happens in historical fiction when a writer falls in love with some fascinating tidbit from their research and puts it in even if it doesn’t serve the story.

The sticky thing in both cases is that you’re dealing with reality, with things that actually happened. While a historical novelist can take advantage of a gap in what’s known to invent something that will help their story work, that’s not possible for a memoirist. So what must you do?

It’s up to you to find the thread of the point as you sift through your memories, go back to journals from the time, perhaps talk to other people involved. It’s a process of selection, of editing out those events and experiences that, however interesting and important they are to you, are outside of the cause-effect trajectory of your plot.

You as protagonist

Your story—and that of a historical novel—derives its momentum not only from the balance of scene and summary, but from the underlying emotions of the protagonist—and in memoir, that’s you. Your reader has to care about you, be on your side, just as they would any protagonist. And the only way to ensure that happens is to dig deep, to lay yourself open in all your emotional complexity, warts and all.

Here is where the historical novelist has a much easier task. We are digging for clues in our research, in letters and archives. What we don’t find we have license to create—as long as what we create fits with the story and character that exists.

For you, that digging can be uncomfortable and scary. But if you gloss over the deep emotions, your memoir risks not having the impact it could if you allow a reader to know your deepest feelings, the good and the bad.

Your memoir is a story

In narrative memoir as in fiction, the principles that govern great storytelling apply. I have touched on only a few here. Your memoir requires world building, manipulation of point of view, compelling scenes, descriptions imbued with meaning, structure, and more. And it’s all wrapped up in revealing something not only about yourself, but about something bigger, something universal.

It’s a very tall order. But thinking like a novelist is one way to help you conquer the craft challenges of writing a great memoir.


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