Tag Archives: Southern American history

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!

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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 🙂

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