12 Creative Novels Based On Real People From History

Biographies and memoirs can reveal a lot of information about their subjects, but they aren't for everyone. Readers who are interested in history but prefer fiction to non-fiction can still delve into the lives of significant figures from the past by picking up one of the wonderful works listed here. Blending real facts with their own imaginations, the authors of these books make history come alive. This video was made with Ezvid Wikimaker.

Historical Fiction Based on Real People: Our 12 Picks

Title Author
1. Finding Dorothy Elizabeth Letts
2. Becoming Bonnie Jenni L. Walsh
3. Leaving Van Gogh Carol Wallace
4. Eating Pavlova D.M. Thomas
5. Dancing in the Dark Caryl Phillips
6. Madame Picasso Anne Girard
7. Little Edward Carey
8. Steering to Freedom Patrick Gabridge
9. White Rose Rebel Janet Paisley
10. Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen Sarah Bird
11. Sunnyside Glen David Gold
12. Ecstasy Mary Sharratt

8 Great Historical Films About Real People

  1. Becoming Jane (2007)
  2. Vita & Virginia (2018)
  3. Amadeus (1984)
  4. Lincoln (2012)
  5. The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
  6. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
  7. A Quiet Passion (2016)
  8. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017)

Why You Should Read Historical Fiction

In Depth

Reading biographies is always illuminating, but there's no reason to stop at the facts surrounding important people from other eras when an author's imagination can provide a window into their thoughts and feelings. For those hoping to dig deeper into the lives of historical figures, here are, in no particular order, twelve novels that weave compelling fictionalized narratives around notable individuals from history.

Arriving at #1 is "Finding Dorothy" by Elizabeth Letts. Told from the perspective of Maud Gage Baum, the wife of the author who wrote "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," this vibrant dual-timeline novel dramatizes the events that informed the classic 1939 movie adaptation, as well as those that took place on set. Following Maud from her nonconformist youth to her strenuous married life in South Dakota, and finally to Hollywood where she grows profoundly connected to actress Judy Garland, Letts paints a poignant portrait of a tenacious woman whose life becomes inseparable from the art she helps to inspire.

For #2 we have "Becoming Bonnie" by Jenni L. Walsh. Before her days as one half of infamous outlaw duo Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnelyn Parker is a wholesome sixteen-year-old girl who attends church and helps her impoverished family get by in Prohibition-era Texas. After her boyfriend's sudden marriage proposal, she starts spending time in a Dallas speakeasy and sheds her virtuous image. With the Depression looming, she meets the wily Clyde Barrow, catalyzing the criminal events that will shape the rest of her life.

Before her days as one half of infamous outlaw duo Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnelyn Parker is a wholesome sixteen-year-old girl who attends church and helps her impoverished family get by in Prohibition-era Texas.

At #3 is "Leaving Van Gogh" by Carol Wallace. Now one of the most well-known artists in history, Vincent Van Gogh died in relative obscurity after committing suicide in 1890. Imagining his final, arduous months from the point of view of his doctor, Paul Gachet, Wallace's engrossing book takes an unorthodox and intimate look at the mysteries surrounding the brilliant painter's legacy. Through Gachet's psychological acumen, the novel probes the dysfunction that contributed to both Van Gogh's creativity and his tragic demise.

For #4 we get "Eating Pavlova" by D.M. Thomas. As he lies dying, his mind in a morphine-induced haze, Sigmund Freud's consciousness wanders through a melange of dreams and memories. By his side is his loyal daughter Anna, who attempts to interpret the myriad anecdotes relayed by her ailing father. Throughout, allusions to Freud's family and career combine with speculation about his life, creating a heady, complex portrayal befitting the father of psychoanalysis.

Landing at #5 is "Dancing in the Dark" by Caryl Phillips. Tackling issues of racial identity in America at the turn of the 20th century, this unique novel explores how the largely forgotten Bert Williams became the first famous black entertainer in the United States. An immigrant from the Bahamas, Williams spends much of his early life struggling to make it big on stage. When he decides to put on blackface for a vaudeville show, he finds himself launched to stardom on Broadway. But behind the performer's success, he is haunted by the racist caricature on which his career is built.

An immigrant from the Bahamas, Williams spends much of his early life struggling to make it big on stage.

For #6 we find "Madame Picasso" by Anne Girard. Brimming with aspirations, the young Eva leaves behind the French countryside for Paris, where she gets a job making costumes at the Moulin Rouge. While there, she attracts the eye of up-and-coming painter Pablo Picasso, and the two are swept up in a passionate relationship. As their feelings for each other deepen, Eva becomes the artist's reliable muse and greatest lover, invigorating his life as well as his paintings.

Showing up at #7 is "Little" by Edward Carey. Set during the French Revolution, this drolly morbid book illustrates the rise of the most famous waxworks creator in the world, Madame Tussaud. Following the death of her parents, six-year-old Marie becomes apprentice to a peculiar sculptor, who brings her to Paris where they start a business making and exhibiting wax heads. After a while, knowledge of Marie's creative prowess gets out, and she lands a job mentoring aspiring artists in the palace of King Louis XVI. But as the sculpting prodigy continues to master the art of fake heads at Versailles, real ones begin to roll in the streets outside.

For #8 we arrive at "Steering to Freedom" by Patrick Gabridge. The courageous journey of Robert Smalls, the first black person to captain a U.S. military vessel, comes alive in Gabridge's gripping account of an American Civil War hero. After escaping slavery by stealing and piloting a steamboat out of South Carolina with other fugitive families on board, Smalls makes his way to Union territory to fight for the freedom of his people. Going to Washington, he advocates for the enlistment of black soldiers, and sets out on nautical missions against the Confederate navy to end slavery once and for all.

Going to Washington, he advocates for the enlistment of black soldiers, and sets out on nautical missions against the Confederate navy to end slavery once and for all.

Coming in at #9 is "White Rose Rebel" by Janet Paisley. Bursting with scintillating descriptions, Paisley's historical romance illuminates the personal drama behind Great Britain's bloody past. When the Jacobites rise up against the English in 1745, seeking to win the Scottish throne for the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie, Anne Farquharson joins the rebellion. But in doing so, she must fight against her husband Aeneas, who recently defected to the English army, as well as reunite with her old lover Alexander. Along the way, the intrepid warrior will become Scotland's fabled Colonel Anne.

For #10 we have "Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen" by Sarah Bird. Cathy Williams, who was born into slavery in Missouri, is freed when Union General Phillip Sheridan plunders the tobacco plantation where she's held. Taken away to Sheridan's camp, Cathy is recruited as a cook's assistant, and works among the men while the Civil War draws to a close. Afterwards, she disguises herself as a man and travels out west to serve with the famous Buffalo Soldiers. Renamed Private William Cathay, she becomes the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. army.

At #11 is "Sunnyside" by Glen David Gold. In this inspired novel that takes readers from old Hollywood to Russia during the October Revolution, real and fictional characters come together to create a fanciful portrait of the early 20th century. In 1916, the public erupts in pandemonium after Charlie Chaplin is sighted in hundreds of places at the same time. As the performer wrestles with his life and celebrity, a series of intersecting narratives build around him involving World War I, Bolsheviks, film theorists, entertainment legends, and a plethora of lively characters.

In 1916, the public erupts in pandemonium after Charlie Chaplin is sighted in hundreds of places at the same time.

Finally, at #12 we come to "Ecstasy" by Mary Sharratt. It's the dawn of the 20th century in Vienna, and the young, free-spirited pianist Alma Schindler has her sights set on becoming a renowned composer. But when she falls for musical virtuoso Gustav Mahler, and he demands that she relinquish her ambitions to support his career, she faces a distressing dilemma. Although she ultimately gets married to Mahler, Alma continues to be split between her love for the composer and her desire to realize her own creative passions. With an evocative sense of the artistic and intellectual culture of Vienna at the time, Sharratt crafts a rich portrayal of a formidable woman.