How to Write a Novel Based on a True Story

Guest post by Harlow Coban

My story isn’t a warm and fuzzy one.

My father was murdered when I was 12 years of age.

A few years ago, at my uncle’s urging, I looked into what happened to him.  The police had suspects, but no one was ever arrested and the case remains unsolved.

I learned a lot about police procedure when I looked into my father’s murder.  It was then that I decided to write a novel.

While my murder mystery novella, Life in Death, is not entirely based on what happened to my father, it draws from real life experiences I had with him.

Writing the novel was a cathartic experience for me.  What I liked most, and found particularly cleansing, about the experience was my power to spin the story as I saw fit.

We all love, hate, laugh, cry, and everything in between, so we’re never at a loss for stories to tell.

Here’s how you get started writing a novel based on a true story:

    • Determine what kind of story you want to write.  Talk to family and friends.  Look at newspaper articles.  I don’t want to be morose, but look at obituaries, too.  Take notes.  There are stories there.
    • Determine the story’s theme:  Good/evil, love/hate, birth/death, peace/war, etc.  Again, take notes.  This may be where the title of your book comes from or maybe not.  The title of my book came to me in a dream.
    • Construct a compelling plot.  I suggest creating a plot outline to start with.  I used the “what if” technique to determine what would happen in my chapters.  Basically, you ask yourself “what if” this or that happened to your character and expand from there.
    • Create dynamic scenes.  My advice is something has to happen in “every” chapter or scene.
    • Create multi-dimensional characters.  Many writers, including yours truly, base their characters on real people and then add nuances to create more complexity and depth.   This is one way to go.
    • Read, read, read.  The more you read, the better writer you’ll become.
    • Lastly, start writing.  “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice In Wonderland.

    Truth can be stranger than fiction, but maybe not as entertaining.  The key to writing a novel based on a true story is in how you spin the story to make it enjoyable for readers.

    Harlow Coban’s debut novel, Life in Death (February 2012), is a murder mystery which pulls from real-life situations from her own family history. She felt compelled to share her story with the world while offering a thrilling, entertaining, and amusing escape for readers.

    In keeping with her commitment to improving the lives of children, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club in her home state of North Carolina.

    She loves to connect with her readers and can be found on Twitter, Facebook (!/pages/Harlow-Coban/174596219285270), and her website .

    Synopsis of Life in Death

    When a girl that social worker Kari Marchant places in foster care is brutally murdered, she’s compelled to learn why. Her quest for the truth pits her against friends and coworkers. As Kari works to solve the horrific plot, more people die. She’s been targeted for death and she doesn’t even know it. How far should she go to learn the truth—even if it threatens her life?

    When homicide detective Rance Nicolet meets Kari, his attraction to her is powerful—and the feeling is mutual. But things between them go terribly wrong when Kari’s old lover is found murdered with a letter from her in his pocket. The evidence against Kari is damning. Rance’s personal and professional lives collide. Does he blindly believe the woman he’s falling in love with or follow the evidence no matter where it leads?

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3 Comments on "How to Write a Novel Based on a True Story"

  1. I have never really considered writing a novel, but to write it from your perspective is pretty interesting. Thank you for enlightening me and sharing your experience.


  2. This was very helpful. I’ve interviewed my father about his life story and am struggling with what to do with it. I am basically a non-fiction writer, but I’m going to have to fill in a lot of holes with his story. You’ve given me some good ideas and inspiration.



  3. Hello,
    My situation is almost the same as yours dealing with the police in another state. My 21 year old son was shot on the right side of his temple and the out of state police said it was suicide. As a mother I will not and cannot let go until that city change his death from suicide to unsolved homicide. Paper work I do have.


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