Francesca Hornak is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Elle, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Red. She is the author of two nonfiction books. Her first novel, Seven Days of Us, tells the story of a family is forced to spend a week together for Christmas. Here, she shares tips on how to incorporate pieces of your family into a book without causing chaos.
Before you read this, I should tell you that as I write this, my first and only novel Seven Days of Us has not yet been published. And so far, my husband and parents are my only family to have read it. So I’m not sure how qualified I am to advise on ‘Writing family into fiction without burning bridges’.
Still, I do know all about not deliberately offending loved ones in print, thanks to a social stereotypes column I wrote in The Sunday Times for two years. Inevitably I drew on real life, nearly every week, and often my sources had to be tactfully hidden. Occasionally I didn’t realize I had borrowed from reality, until just before the deadline. Then I had to send frantic emails to my favorite sub-editor: ‘Please could you change ‘espadrille’ in the second paragraph to ‘moccasin’ – I’m so sorry to ask this but my cousin is a big espadrille-wearer and may be insulted.’ Once I even had to add, truthfully: ‘He is also terminally ill, so I really don’t want to upset him.’ Aaaagh.
My main advice, then, is to avoid ever needing to send that kind of email. It will keep you awake at 3 AM, and no fiction is worth that. Here’s my rulebook:
1. Change one fundamental.
If you want to write a character that’s based on a close relation, but risk causing offense if they recognize themselves, think about whether you can switch their gender. Men don’t readily spot themselves in female characters, and vice versa. I did this in Seven Days of Us, and it didn’t impact the character’s behavior or relationships as much as you might expect. Changing your muse’s physical appearance, geographical origins, age, or career in your fictional portrait can help too – but if you change these too drastically, the whole portrait may no longer stack up. Turning an accountant into a lawyer is a viable switch. Turning them into a poet, less so.
2. Focus on the details, not the bigger picture.
I’ve found that family readers are quick to spot tangible details lifted from life (see espadrille-gate above), but are slower to spot when a whole family dynamic, or character, is based on reality. So watch the little things. Don’t have the pompous aunt in your story drink the exact herbal tea your mother-in-law drinks. People know which herbal tea they like. They don’t usually know that they’re pompous.
3. Just ask.
If you want to use an incident or situation that actually happened within your family, you can always just ask. If even the idea of asking makes you feel sick, perhaps that’s your answer. But generally I’ve found people say yes (though they will see it as license to ask ‘How’s the book?’ at every family occasion). If they say no, console yourself that you’ve saved everyone future stress.
4. People are thicker-skinned than you expect.
Writing my magazine column, I was surprised at how friends and family actually seemed to enjoy seeing themselves parodied in print. People love to belong, even when their tribe is being ridiculed. Middle class decor, clothes, holidays, parenting, job, social mores, and shopping habits are generally fair game for satire. Tread more carefully around disappointing careers, upward social mobility and cosmetic surgery.
5. Relax, it’s out of your hands.
If you write family drama, people will assume it’s autobiographical. You can’t escape that. The funny thing is how off-the-mark their guesses are about who’s who, and what’s what. My father assumed that the bratty sister in Seven Days of Us was based on a mutual acquaintance – in fact she never even entered my head. In other words, people read through their own private lens. Trying to control or pre-empt their responses is impossible, and when you think about it that’s liberating. The downside? You’ll probably offend someone completely unintentionally.