If you’re anything like me, the tagline “Based on a true story” is an attention grabber, be it for a novel, film or TV series. There’s something about historical events, true crime, or real people that adds a certain appeal to a fictional tale. Perhaps these stories resonate with many of us because they convey authenticity and let us know there is a genuine link between the words on the page and the world ‘out there’, making stories and characters instinctively relatable.
Of course, all writers draw inspiration from real life, even for genres like fantasy and sci-fi. Readers need to understand a narrative arc and a character’s motivation, and most fiction is influenced by the writer’s own life, experiences and memories – all of which we, as readers, should be able to relate to on some level. But when it comes to dramatizing real people or real events, a writer has to merge fact and fiction, and this can be a tricky endeavour for many reasons. For example, a novel set in a specific historical period requires meticulous research. As a writer who has based several novels on real historical events, I am familiar with the difficulties this poses. On the one hand, facts are facts and have to be presented as such. Any errors or inaccuracies on my part can damage the credibility of a novel and leave readers questioning the entire story. On the other hand, I am not immune to the temptation to share everything I have ever learned about, say, the construction industry in late 19th-century Berlin, or the fashions of Jewish exiles in 1940’s Shanghai. (A huge shout-out to editors here, who are experts in guiding novelists away from information dumps!)
Basing a character in a novel on a real person can be a balancing act for different reasons. My novel Daughters of Warsaw is inspired by Irena Sendler, a Polish resistance activist who operated during the Second World War. Irena was a social worker and nurse who demonstrated extraordinary courage by smuggling Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto and putting her own life at risk in the process. She was eventually discovered and arrested by the Gestapo in 1943; despite being tortured, she did not betray her friends and comrades. She was sentenced to death but was ultimately able to escape and remained in hiding, continuing her underground resistance activities until the end of the war. She died in 2008, having been recognised as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1965 for her courageous actions.
Irena Sendler is one of the most inspirational ‘real-life’ heroes I have ever come across, and for this reason, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to do her and her story justice. By putting words in Irena’s mouth, by having her behave in certain ways, I was, in a sense, ‘recreating’ that person. At the same time, I didn’t have the right to shape her character according to my will. This resulted in somewhat of an ethical dilemma: How to honour the deeds of a genuine hero while bringing her to life for the reader by filling in the gaps. It was important to me not to make up anything significant beyond what is known of her, based on her documented actions, later interviews and testimonies of people who actually knew her. I had to imagine conversations she might have had in specific situations, while remaining mindful of the fact that she had an inner life I know nothing about, an inner life she shared, perhaps, with only those who were close to her.
For all these reasons, the Irena Sendler of my imagination remains a secondary character in the novel. Despite this, Irena was instantly relatable to me on a personal level – even though I knew her story, I found myself deeply concerned for her fate and was rooting for her throughout my writing of the book! Perhaps this speaks to the greatness of her character, and I hope that even though I am presenting her story through the lens of my own imagination, readers of Daughters of Warsaw are similarly touched by the incredible courage of this woman who saved countless lives through her selfless actions. For all the difficulties and pitfalls of merging fact and fiction, I would argue that stories such as Irena Sendler’s deserve to be told and retold, not least as a tribute to those who risked their lives to save others.
Daughters of Warsaw is published by Avon on 18 January 2024