How a Novel Can Be Like a Memoir: Guest Blogger SK Nicholls

I read the novel Red Clay and Roses by blogger S.K. Nicholls. In addition to its engaging, well-told story, the book intrigued me with its historic detail and accuracy.  When S.K. and I discussed the real life story behind the book, I saw that the line between a novel and a nonfiction genre, such as memoir, is not always that well-defined. In this case, thank goodness!

So I asked S.K. to talk about the historical nature of her book, without using any spoilers–and here she is!

By the way, you’re going to want to check out her book for yourself!


The lovely Luanne has invited me here to her very neat and pleasant blog to tell you a little bit about how writing a roman à clef relates to writing a memoir. I’m a little disorganized. I’ll try not to mess things up too much while I’m here.

A roman à clef is a fictionalized true story. Not quite a biography and not quite an autobiography.

French for novel with a key, it is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. Historically, the original works had a key included that was often mailed out to people who followed a story. The key identified real life people whom the stories were written about so a select few who were privy would know the truth (as the author told it, which often amounted to gossip and was flavored with the author’s own ideas).

Why was that necessary?

The roman à clef (pronounced: romana clay) was written about stories that were considered scandalous. The reasons an author might choose the roman à clef format include satire; writing about controversial topics and/or reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to charges of libel; the opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone; the opportunity to portray personal, autobiographical experiences without having to expose the author as the subject; avoiding self-incrimination or incrimination of others that could be used as evidence in civil, criminal, or disciplinary proceedings; and the settling of scores.

Where a memoir is more like a true story of the author’s life experiences, more like an autobiography, the roman à clef may be colored with more biographical facts and fiction about others.

  • Both recall facts.
  • Both involve real life experiences.
  • The memoir is a genre of its own.
  • The roman a clef is akin to historical fiction (only ordinary people become characters rather than famous people).

While most all fiction is inspired by real life situations, a roman à clef goes one step further and records actual history. The names and locations may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty) but the basic story actually and factually occurred. How is that possible? Then it would be nonfiction, right? Wrong.

I will use my book, “Red Clay and Roses” as example.

Part One was written in first person. The nurse interviews a couple of people who tell their stories and she relates those stories through development of the characters, as in fiction. Ms. Bea, the good doctor’s wife, and Moses, the good doctor’s handyman, were two individuals that I, in real life, had the pleasure of meeting. I valued their stories and wanted to retell them. How they were involved with the good doctor was very significant. The good doctor was a chiropractor who had an abortion clinic in the basement of his home back in the fifties when abortion in any form was criminal.

Through Ms. Bea and Moses (in 1992), I was introduced to people I had never met: Moses’ wife, Eula Mae, his son, Nathan, and his daughter, Althea, Swamp Witch Wilma…and of course, the good doctor. I developed their characters for the story through what I had learned about them through these other folk and told their stories. Names were changed, but the events actually occurred as best as could be recalled.

In 2012, I was reintroduced to an eighty year old cousin, Sybil, and learned so much more. She was a white woman deeply enmeshed with Nathan, the black handyman’s son in the 1950s-60s during the commencement of the Civil Rights Movement. Again, that was scandalous in the Deep South!

Part Two, written in third person, was born to tell their story.

While all of these stories were true, the ending was less than satisfying to me so I took the liberty of the roman à clef to create what I felt was a more satisfying ending. “The opportunity to turn the tale the way the author would like it to have gone.”

So, while a memoir and a roman à clef both tell a history, the memoir is a true to life experience of its author, while the roman à clef is more of an imaginatively creative endeavor that reads more like fiction than non-fiction.

“A novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction.” The events that prompted the writing of “Red Clay and Roses” actually occurred. They were true stories based on my own experiences, or were shared with me by those close to me. Some of the people I never had opportunity to meet were described to me and their personalities were developed from those descriptions. That being said, the characters were imaginatively created to tell their stories. Likewise, although I drew on my experiences as a nurse, Hannah is a fictional character.

The historical events in “Red Clay and Roses” were pulled together through exhaustive research from old newspaper articles (primarily the LaGrange Daily News in GA, the Troup and Meriwether County Archives), and online research. The character’s real life participation in these events was factual.

Have I thoroughly confused you?

Would you like to read more?

Thank you, Luanne, for allowing me to ramble about on your blog 🙂

 Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000031_00016]


Filed under Blogging, Book Review, Books, Research and prep for writing, Vintage American culture, Writing

61 responses to “How a Novel Can Be Like a Memoir: Guest Blogger SK Nicholls

  1. Thanks, S.K. Very informative!

  2. I enjoyed reading about your roman a clef, SK. There are so many gradations between fact and fancy, and the one you chose sounds like a lot of fun — interviews, newspaper research, and imagination all part of the mix. I’m enticed to read on!

  3. Reblogged this on S.K. Nicholls and commented:
    The lovely Luanne has allowed me to post a guest post on her Writer Site blog. Luanne posts a great deal about memoir writing and memoirs, so this post is about how Red Clay and Roses, a roman a clef, and memoirs compare and contrast.

  4. This sounds right up my alley! Will read!

  5. NO, not confused at all! Intriguing explanation. Nice to know more background. <3

  6. I liked how you set the book up–the different time settings, different POV characters, one more intimate in first-person narrative. Interesting to read about your conceptualization of the process.

    • Thanks, Carrie! I would be hard pressed to repeat that process. I have another book about the same time period, but I may not finish it for quite a long while. The research for the subject matter is much more obscure…topics people never wrote or talked about much.

    • Carrie, thanks so much for stopping over. SK’s book is a fascinating read about a topic you don’t read enough about.

  7. This sounds very interesting…I love the title! Great to meet you and your latest creation, S.K.

  8. Thank you… I’ve never heard of a roman a clef before. Its very interesting to me, as I am trying to write a memoir of a particular part of my life, with a view to it being helpful to others who might be having similar experiences. It doesnt work as fiction, but I’m struggling to write it as a memoir. Maybe this is an answer.

  9. Fascinating and masterfully told tale. Thanks for spreading the word.

  10. I enjoyed the book – and recommend it.

  11. Very interesting and informative. Now I’m even more eager to start reading Red Clay and Roses :-).

    • It doesn’t avoid controversy, but it’s not preachy either. That was the joy in writing in the roman a clef style. I hope you enjoy.

    • Hi Leigh, I read what you said about not minding controversy. One of the main topics of SK’s book is very controversial, but she doesn’t present a “side” to it, but rather shows what it was like for particular women at that point in history. Thanks so much for stopping by and enjoy reading the book!

  12. Fabulous! I really enjoyed reading this particular blog. I am enthralled with “Red Clay and Roses.” It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years, in fact. Thank you for posting this. 😉

  13. What an absolutely fascinating read this is SK, thank you so much for the wonderful explanation and no, I am not in the least bit confused, quite the opposite in fact! Since I’m writing my memoir I’ve come across various articles about the process and Luanne and I have had one or two ‘chats’ about it. Another memoirist recently commented on one of my posts that she decided to change her memoir to an autobiography in order to get by the problem of writing about difficult, personal events. But I’ve never heard of the roman à clef! Love the bit about the key! Your book sounds so interesting and has been added to my ever-growing list (but I have a Kindle now, woo hoo!). Great post, thanks so much to you both 🙂

    • Sherri, lucky you with the Kindle! haha, I’m not ready yet. Isn’t this a fabulous idea for dealing with sticky personal information?! SK’s book really gives you a lot to think about regarding the history of women in the 20th century and in particular in the American south, as well as race relations and racism. I always enjoy your comments so much! xo

  14. Thank you Sherri. I hope you do read and enjoy. It’s some controversial subject matter, but I tried to remain neutral as an author and just tell the stories. There is a somewhat perplexing narrative template for the novel. The introduction leads into the first person story by the nurse, Hannah, who found the ledger that opens Pandora’s box and of what occurred in 1992 and the stories of Ms. Bea and Moses in Part One. Part Two is in third person to tell Nathan and Sybil’s story, and the conclusion is back in 2012. I tried a hundred different ways to work it, but to stay true to the actual events as they unfolded that’s the way it had to be. Pleasure to meet you and I wish you success with your memoir.

  15. Magnificent post, with an intriguing book to read included! Luanne, this was such a great way to have the author get involved with your blog, let us in on a really wonderful way to include history, facts and characters, without facing libel charges! Best of luck to S.K. Nicholls. This sounds like a genius way to carry the story, you’re shifting whose ‘side’ of the story you are telling and also, such a great ‘key’ to how to delve into scintillating situations, too! Loved this a lot, since I have hopes of a mystery story being written by me, someday in my retirement ages. There is always hope because of how old, ‘And Ladies of the Club’ author was! Smiles!

    • Oh Robin, I had forgotten about And Ladies of the Club (which I have not read) and how old the author was when she got it published! That really does give me some hope! Isn’t SK’s idea fabulous? Her book is great, too. It’s got a controversial subject at the heart of it, but she doesn’t hammer home an opinion, but presents the stories of real women in this novel! xoxo

    • Thank you Robin and Luanne. That’s what I really wanted to bring home with this book. We read about famous people from the era, but it was common-folk, ordinary people making the progresses we have seen. The roman a clef was a way to tell their stories. And thank you, Luanne, for having me here. 🙂

      • SK, thank you so much for writing this post. The information is really informative–and I think readers have really enjoyed it. It’s given a lot of us food for thought!

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  17. Thank you for hosting SK, Luanne! I read RC&R probably about a year ago now. I too was struck by the deep historical detail that SK used and how that detail brought the story alive.

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