Are Ancestors “Fair Game” in Fiction?

May 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

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Ciji Ware, ABC RadioI remember when I was a young consumer reporter in my early days at ABC—long before I’d written or published novels like That Summer in Cornwall —when the subject of one of my radio assignments became very angry that I revealed that his company was pumping air into its ice cream to increase the bulk (and hence the weight) which, of course, meant they could charge-more-for-less.suppliedsmallcone

I told a veteran newspaperman about the significant blowback I received from Mr. Ice Cream and the head of the station’s ad department after the story aired, given that the chain where this tasty treat was sold turned out to be one of KABC’s biggest advertisers…oops! The old media hand gave me one of his droll looks and said, “Oh, I guess I forgot to warn you, Ciji.  People who think they are important only want to be described in the noblest of terms.  However, you’ll just have to ignore that and tell the truth.” That, he added, was my purpose as a reporter.

Island of the SwansI ran into an alarmingly similar problem when I was researching my first historical novel, Island of the Swans, a kind of a Gone with the Wind of Scotland saga that was based on the life of an historical figure, Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon.images

I had contacted a descendant of one of the other “true-life” figures in this biographical novel, Baron Simon, the 15th Lord Lovat of Fraser, a celebrated World War II hero (played by Peter Lawford in the classic The Longest Day) who, along with his wife, Lady Rose, eventually hosted my son and me as guests at Balblair House for a few days on one of our trips to the Highlands to track down the important details of the amazing Duchess’ tumultuous life.Lady Rose, Lord Lovat, Jamie, Ciji BalBlair House, Scotland

I had landed on the Lovats’ doorstep—literally—in search of information about the “lost lieutenant,” Thomas Fraser of Struy, who had erroneously been reported killed in the American Colonies while serving with the Black Watch regiment at Fort Pitt—now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.william-hogarth-portrait-of-simon-fraser-lord-lovat

I soon began to get that same, uneasy feeling when an eighteenth century Lord Lovat, painted here by Hogarth, was beginning to emerge as a slightly villainous figure in my story, preventing, it turned out, the lovely Jane Maxwell (from whom my own great grand-grandmother claimed our McCulloughs descended) from marrying the great love of her life, the aforementioned Simon Fraser’s ward, the handsome soldier, Lieutenant Thomas Fraser of Struy, later in the 78th Fraser Highlanders, as shown here.soldierb

I nervously explained to the present-day Lord Lovat, who had been so kind and helpful to me in my researches, that his ancestor Simon Lovat, son of “Simon the Fox” who had been beheaded for his nefarious deeds, was truly a dark force in the novel. The current Lord Lovat threw his head back and roared with laughter.  “Oh!” he exclaimed to Lady Rose, “how frightfully amusing!”

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Here he was—a genuine war hero and nobleman, memorialized during his lifetime with an enormous statue on a hill in the Scottish Highlands—and he wasn’t going to give me grief just because the truth lead me to an historical figure in my book whose selfish, frankly despicable actions truly drove the plot.  I realized in that moment that creating a compelling story based on the facts as best as can be discovered, especially in a biographical novel dealing with “real-life” people who once walked the planet, is my purpose as a writer.

103373516_271138cThat formative experience with Lord and Lady Lovat, seen here on their wedding day in 1938, taught me a great lesson:  whether writing fact or fiction, my job is to let the evidence take this writer wherever it will.  Simply tell the story–and damn the torpedeos!

But what if a character in my upcoming novel, That Autumn in Edinburgh, a modern day sequel to the historical novel, Island of the Swans, is based on a descendant of my own ancestor who—it turns out–may not have behaved so nobly?  What will my family say….?Ciji at work in Portofino Office 4-07

More on that sticky subject another time as I knuckle down to the next task at hand…and head for Scotland in June.