Creating Historical Fiction

Note to reader: I am struck by the irony of my post Creating Historical Fiction that I planned for today. Start with the facts, I write, but if you want a richer, more powerful story, try converting your story into a fictionalized version. We’re living in a time when a president is attempting to stay in power by creating a fictional version of the election. Future historians will help us understand the facts and how we responded thereafter. (SD – 1/12/21)


A thin, wavering curtain separates historical facts from the imagination of fiction. Research files may bulge with historical documents that provide the framework for fictionalized ancestors, but imagination and inspiration weave them into a deeper story.

Start with the Facts

Nearly every family has colorful characters and fascinating stories. You can probably think of a few yourself; maybe you have considered writing about them. But how? When I first became interested in my gold-rush era great-grandmother, I decided to write a biographical account of what I knew about how she came to California, ran an 800-acre farm, and worked to better the condition of her community.

Facts evolve into Fiction

At some point, I realized there was a larger story to tell – not just of her life and work, but how it related to the present generation, and even to our unknown future generations who will inherit our stories. I was encouraged to stretch into the realm of historical fiction. Gary Noy, editor of The Illuminated Landscape, A Sierra Nevada Anthology, agreed that fictionalized history carries an emotional resonance that far exceeds the presentation of facts. By writing a novel inspired by historical facts, I was free to tell a deeper, unhindered story.

From Fiction Back to Fact

Like the tip of an iceberg, fictionalized characters are more believable because of the bulk of research that lies beneath their story. Now that my fictionalized version is published, I return full circle to all the facts that launched Heart Wood. In conducting years of research, I’ve been delighted to know my great-grandmother as a larger-than-life thinker, writer, and activist. This research is now posted on my website under “Historical Research.” I am pleased to share my findings with my greater family and to make it available to the public for historical research.

I invite you browse the research that went into the creation of the past in Heart Wood. Perhaps it will be an inspiration to create something from your own family’s story!

Emily and Charles Hoppin (Yolo, California, 1850-1915)

The ancestors whose story inspired me to create Eliza and Silas in Heart Wood

I have recently posted over 25 documents and photographs on my website , including:  

Charles Hoppin’s letters home from the Gold Rush (1850-1863)

An oral history with my grandmother, Dorothea Hoppin Moffett, about growing up on the Yolo Ranch with her mother, Emily Hoppin

Pages of Emily Hoppin’s personal scrapbook (1890s-1915) with news clippings of her campaign for president of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, 1915

Photographs, maps, and selected documents from internet research

Conducting historical research has changed dramatically over the years

The Internet was unheard of when I first started investigating my family’s history in the late 1980s. To locate and read documents back then, I had to get in my car and travel to distant libraries and archives. Today, it’s a different world: my recent internet search for “Emily Hoppin, Yolo” found over 240 references to her in the California Digitalized Newspaper Collection!

AND…without the invaluable assistance of the Yolo County Archives and Records Center, Emily’s scrapbook would still be sitting on my bookshelf.  I am grateful to Coordinator Heather Lanctot who scanned each page with their large-sized scanner so that the scrapbook can be read on my website, and in time, will be a permanent public record at The Yolo Archives. Like all volunteer-based organizations during this time of COVID, The Yolo Archives appreciates donations (bit.ly/fyca-join).

I hope you will enjoy browsing my Historical Research page and perhaps be inspired to be creative with your own family’s history. If you’re curious about writing historical fiction, traditional memoir, or a biography, you can find a wealth of support on the internet, on-line classes, writing coaches, and books.

“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges into the past.” – James Joyce, Ulysses


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www.shirleydickard.com