How To Write A Book Based On A True Story: 6 Tips For Success

Sarah Rexford
July 04, 2023 | 6 mins

One of the most crucial reasons to learn how to write a book based on a true story is because of the unique role realism plays in fiction. When you decide to base a work of fiction on real-life instances, something very special happens: You build your story on vulnerability and authenticity.

In this article, I define how to write a book based on a true story, share a process you can follow for your next novel, as well as include different aspects to note before taking your book to print. And of course, I end with real examples!

Need A Nonfiction Book Outline?

Defining Exactly How To Write A Book Based On A True Story

Your specific formula for how to write a book based on a true story will depend on the genre of story you choose to write. There are many types of fiction today, and books based on true stories can fall into a variety of these sub-genres. 

For instance, if you want to write a book set during the era of the Dust Bowl (a real event that took place and impacted countless individuals), your method will look different than if you wanted to write a novel based on things that have happened in your own life.

The first will require specific historical research and likely fall under the sub-genre of historical fiction. 

The second would be an autobiography or memoir, depending on how you want to tell the story and the reason you are writing the book. You won't need to do any external research and fact-checking, but you may want to interview loved ones, other people who will be a part of the story, and family.

Related: How to Write a Memoir

How To Write A Book Based On A True Story

Due to the subjective nature of writing a book, there is no set writing process that works for every author. Each creative has their own specific needs and goals, and therefore different processes work for some and not others. 

However, learning a standard process for how to write a book based on a true story can help you establish your own, inspire a spin-off, or even teach you what doesn’t work for you. Let’s dive in!

1. Ask why this story matters

When learning how to write a book based on a true story, first ask yourself why this particular story matters to you. Writing a fictional account of a nonfiction event will likely take substantially more time than simply writing fiction.

By the time you start your project it’s important to have already fully committed. So, if there is a reason this story particularly matters and you are passionate about getting your book out into the world, by all means, move forward!

2. Consider who has the most to lose

Who you choose as your perspective character (protagonist) can make or break your novel. When deciding who will star in your novel, I’ve found it can be helpful to ask two simple questions: Who has the most to lose? Who has the most at stake?

Once you decide on your few key perspective characters or one main protagonist, move on to step three. 

3. Proceed with caution when using real names and locations 

You will want to use caution when using names – or swap them out completely. Particularly if you cast a real character or location in a negative light, highlighting their character flaws.

You may want to change entire locations, genders, and even ages of people to protect their identity (and save you from being sued). 

Learning how to write a book based on a true story also means walking the line between fact and fiction. Fact inspires fiction, but does not define it.

4. Includine the proper front matter

Creating the write front matter includes writing an acknowledgments page, table of contents, notes from the author, and more. It's everything that comes before the first chapter. Within this front matter, you will want to include a note stating that your novel is inspired by real events if you changed most of the story.

If you worked to keep the story as true to fact as possible, you could consider noting that your book is based on a true story. 

Consider the book Unbroken (based on a true story) versus the Netflix show Inventing Anna. The beginning credits shamelessly state that the story is entirely true, minus the parts that are entirely made up. 

5. Do more research than you plan to include 

Research is the name of the game when you learn how to write a book based on a true story. Read that last phrase again: write a book on a true story.

Unlike your other fictional works, at its foundation, this one rings true. 

Adding layers of truth will bring realism to your novel, so conduct enough research. However, refuse the urge to show off by including every fact you researched in your final draft.

Next up, when writing a book about a true story, there are a few rules of thumb to follow before you let the world see your final product. 

6. Don’t forget that fiction feels fake and nonfiction feels real

Once you learn to cover yourself legally, it’s time to dive deep into the fictional aspect of your story. Remember that readers often view fiction as fake and nonfiction as real. As they should.

When it comes to storytelling, fiction is often written as unbelievable:

  • The protagonist gets out at the last moment
  • A plot twist changes everything  
  • Magic saves the day

Ironically, when writing a book about a true story, the reverse is often true. It’s not the mundane stories of everyday life that inspire nonfiction; it’s the phenomenal or unbelievable. After all, that's what makes the true story compelling enough to put in a book!

When learning how to write a book based on a real story, remember that the worst case scenarios may in fact come from fact, whereas the less chaotic scenes may be fiction. Balance these ironies with caution.

Real Examples From Real Stories

Before we wrap up, here are three examples of authors who have written books based on true stories.

The Four Winds, Kristin Hannah

The fictional character, Elsa Wolcott, is set during the very real event of the Dust Bowl period. The level of detail Hannah includes is incredible, yet the heart-wrenching story of Elsa is made up.

While Elsa Wolcott is a fictional character, someone like her very well could have lived during the time period of Hannah’s novel.

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls

You may have seen the film adaptation of The Glass Castle, not realizing it’s actually Jeannette Walls’ memoir. As mentioned above, some creative nonfiction is so astonishing it feels like fiction. 

Based on Jeannette’s own experience growing up in her family, The Glass Castle is a compelling story filled with intense emotions, love, and loyalty.  

Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer

Christopher Johnson McCandless’s tragic story has become a classic. In fact, Entertainment Weekly says, “It may be nonfiction, but Into the Wild is a mystery of the highest order.” 

This mystery story covers McCandless’s 1992 hitchhike to Alaska (a truly epic inciting incident), his journey to Mount McKinley, and his death. It ends with how his body was discovered by a hunter. 

Thrilling Nonfiction, Everyday Fiction

As you practice how to write a book based on a true story, don’t underestimate the balance between the realism of fiction and the unbelievability of nonfiction. This may feel ironic, but it makes for page-turners! 

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