Some of my favorite books that blend fiction and nonfiction

I love novels that are so steeped in history, they meld fiction and nonfiction. These are most often historical novels about real people who did noteworthy things, where the author builds the story around both fictional and nonfictional characters and dialogue. The best of these novels are deeply researched, and by the end I’ve experienced history in a way I couldn’t with nonfiction.

The difference between these books and general historical fiction is that some of the main characters are real people and the story is based primarily on real events. These books often include an explanation of what was true and what was invented (and why). These are books where, as soon as I finish, I get on the internet to learn more.

I’m not much of a biography reader, finding them fairly dry. These novels provide details about famous, interesting people who did great (or terrible) things. And they provide more nuance and insights than straight nonfiction is able to, as long as you don’t mind the author taking some factual liberties.

A perfect example is Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Helene, about an Australian woman who was a Resistance Leader in France during World War II.  Her story is amazing, and Lawhon explains that nearly everything in the book, except for one key character, is based on true events. 

Another excellent example, though with more fictional elements, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich wrote this novel about her grandfather and his fight to keep Congress from terminating (or “emancipating”) his tribe.

Another reality-based favorite is the Kopp Sisters series by Amy Stewart, about three real-life sisters in New Jersey during World War I – in particular, one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs. The first novel, Girl Waits With Gun, was inspired by an actual newspaper article headline.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is more fictional, but I’m including it because O’Farrell’s story is rooted in what we know about William Shakespeare, his wife Ann, and their lives at the time when Hamlet was written, including a very detailed discussion of how the plague was spread. 

One of my favorite writers is T. Coraghessen Boyle, who specializes in this type of novel. He’s written detailed historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred Kinsey, Harvey Kellogg, Stanley McCormick and his wife Katherine Dexter (who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill).

A few other recommendations that deftly blend fiction and nonfiction in different ways:

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (about an abusive reform school in Florida)
  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (about the Blue People of Appalachia and the Pack Horse Librarians)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (about a true murder in 1829)
  • We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter (a novelization about the author’s family during WWII)
  • Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud (about Charles Rennie Mackintosh)

I’d love to read more books like this, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.

  16 comments for “Some of my favorite books that blend fiction and nonfiction

  1. June 22, 2021 at 1:26 am

    I prefer historical novels that treat the facts responsibly while bringing them into a compelling narrative, to biographies which attempt to liven up the tendency toward dryness with lots of speculation and “could have beens”. These all sound like great examples of the former! I know I really enjoyed Burial Rites and Girl Waits with Gun (I think the later books in the series depart from the basis in fact, but that doesn’t bother me as long as there’s full disclosure from the author.)

    And hey, I love your new blog look and header! I guess I haven’t been here for a while, or is it so new?

    • June 22, 2021 at 9:57 am

      Thanks Lory! The header is brand new, it was designed by a friend who is a website designer (her logo at the bottom of the page).
      You’ve articulated really nicely what makes these types of books so great. For me they really bring fascinating people to life – but agree it needs to be handled responsibly. I like when an author explains in detail why certain facts were departed from. I hope you find something else on this list you also enjoy!

  2. June 22, 2021 at 6:28 am

    O’Farrell and Lawhon are two of my favorite authors. I’ve read everything they’ve ever written. LOVE their books.

    • June 22, 2021 at 9:59 am

      I’ve read most of O’Farrell but haven’t read anything else by Lawhon yet. I need to read more!

      • June 22, 2021 at 12:46 pm

        Start with her first one – The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, then go on to Flight of Dreams and then I Was Anastasia – in order of their publications. She always brings something different to each one. And if you like her, you should also try Greer Macallister. I’ve read all of her books so far as well, but… apparently, her next one might be fantasy so… I might pass on that one.

      • June 22, 2021 at 5:31 pm

        Thanks Davida! I was debating between Wife and Flight of Dreams. And thanks for the recommendation of Greer Macallister.

  3. June 22, 2021 at 6:45 am

    Great recommendations!

  4. June 22, 2021 at 11:17 am

    What a great post! I love the Kopp Sisters books so much, and knowing that Constance and her sisters were real people make them all the more enjoyable. I do enjoy this type of historical fiction… but I’m drawing a blank right now! BTW, is this a new layout? It looks fabulous!!

    • June 22, 2021 at 12:07 pm

      The Kopp Sisters are one of my favorite series, and the author incorporates a lot of factual elements even if they are used in a fictional way. But I also just love the characters and the author’s sense of humor. Thanks for commenting on the layout! I switched my theme and a friend who’s a website designer (SGW Design) did the header.

  5. June 22, 2021 at 4:56 pm

    Hamnet is a wonderful novel and I loved that section showing how the plague spread from the flea.
    I’m not sure if this fits your description of fact based fiction but one of my favourites is Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, about a village which decided to put itself into quarantine to stop the plague spreading. The village does exist – I’ve visited it – and some of the characters are real

    • June 22, 2021 at 5:30 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! I remember that book being very good. I didn’t realize the village and some of the characters were real.

  6. June 23, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    Excellent post – I love this kind of book myself, and absolutely loved Code Name Helene and Hamnet. Another one that worked for me as The Night Portrait: a Novel of World War II and da Vinci’s Italy, likewise A Bookshop in Berlin.

    I don’t mind if an author fictionalizes real events, but I really get upset when an author changes history to suit their story. Phillipa Gregory drives me up the wall in this regard. For me, history is the canvas, and an author can paint the story their way, but they shouldn’t change the canvas.

    • June 25, 2021 at 10:04 am

      Thank you for the recommendations, I’ll look those up. I agree about not changing history to suit the story; I’d always prefer factual accuracy, and think authors should make only minor changes. I was disappointed that in Code Name Helene, the author chose to create a fictional character I thought was unnecessary – though in all other regards her attention to detail and factual accuracy was amazing!

  7. June 25, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    Thanks for sharing! The Night Watchman is on my TBR. Love Louise Erdrich’s work!

  8. November 26, 2021 at 10:12 pm

    Great list, worth my time reading.

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