How To Write a Novel Based on a True Story

Harlow CobanToday we welcome guestblogger, Harlow Coban! Harlow is the author of Life in Death, her debut novel which is now available. A fast-paced murder mystery, Life in Death is the first part of the Kari Marchant series. Read on to find out how to effectively turn your real life stories into captivating fiction!


My story isn’t a warm and fuzzy one. 


My father was murdered when I was 12 years of age.


A few years ago, at my uncle’s urging, I looked into what happened to him.  The police had suspects, but no one was ever arrested and the case remains unsolved.


I learned a lot about police procedure when I looked into my father’s murder.  It was then that I decided to write a novel. 


While my murder mystery novella, Life in Death, is not entirely based on what happened to my father, it draws from real life experiences I had with him. 


Writing the novel was a cathartic experience for me.  What I liked most, and found particularly cleansing, about the experience was my power to spin the story as I saw fit. 

We all love, hate, laugh, cry, and everything in between, so we’re never at a loss for stories to tell. 

Here’s how you get started writing a novel based on a true story:

  • Determine what kind of story you want to write.  Talk to family and friends.  Look at newspaper articles.  I don’t want to be morose, but look at obituaries, too.  Take notes.  There are stories there. 


  • Determine the story’s theme:  Good/evil, love/hate, birth/death, peace/war, etc.  Again, take notes.  This may be where the title of your book comes from or maybe not.  The title of my book came to me in a dream.


  • Construct a compelling plot.  I suggest creating a plot outline to start with.  I used the “what if” technique to determine what would happen in my chapters.  Basically, you ask yourself “what if” this or that happened to your character and expand from there.


  • Create dynamic scenes.  My advice is something has to happen in “every” chapter or scene. 


  • Create multi-dimensional characters.  Many writers, including yours truly, base their characters on real people and then add nuances to create more complexity and depth.   This is one way to go.


  • Read, read, read.  The more you read, the better writer you’ll become.   

  • Lastly, start writing.  “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.     

Truth can be stranger than fiction, but maybe not as entertaining.  The key to writing a novel based on a true story is in how you spin the story to make it enjoyable for readers.

Harlow Coban, authorAbout Harlow Coban:

Author Harlow Coban was born in Kansas City, MO, but grew up in Denver, CO.  She relocated to North Carolina five years ago with her husband, two dogs, and 16-year old twins.

She shares a birthday with the notorious Napoleon Bonaparte.  In keeping with his legacy, she is currently working on taking over the world.  Harlow’s positive attitude and fresh take on life are her tools and conquest is certain.

She spends her free time writing, dancing, traveling and defending mailboxes from her 16-year-old twins’ driving.

Her debut novel, LIFE IN DEATH (to be published in early 2012), is a murder mystery which pulls from real-life situations from her own family history.  She felt compelled to share her story with the world while offering a thrilling, entertaining, and amusing escape for readers.

In keeping with her commitment to improving the lives of children, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of her book will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club in her home state of North Carolina.

She loves to connect with her readers and can be found on Twitter, her Blog or on Facebook.

Posted in: Writing

Leave a Comment (19) ↓


  1. Tracy Brooks March 8, 2012

    I’m writing a novel and I have so many questions. It’s based on a true story , but I need some inspiration and help.

    • Alice Osborn March 8, 2012

      Hi Tracy, thanks for connecting with me~the latest issue of THE WRITER (April 2012) has some great tips for fiction writers! Good luck with your writing. I’m here to help~Alice

  2. Penny Childers April 24, 2013

    I am trying to write a novel based on the true life story of a woman I met who was in prison, but is now out. She has given me many details. I have tried to write as a novel because of potential legal issues, but then changed to non-fiction. I almost wished I had not agreed to write her story. A literary agent is interested in the story.

    • Alice Osborn April 24, 2013

      Hi Penny,
      thanks so much for commenting and great for you for writing that woman’s story! I’m curious: why did you wish you hadn’t agreed to write it?
      cheers and visit us again soon! Alice

  3. meeradarjiyr1 July 9, 2013

    Hi, I am new to writing novels, although I have a true story I would like to write. I am slightly unsure of how to go about it. For example, can I used the real names for the characters? Or would I have to change the names for confidentiality? Thanks.

    • Alice Osborn July 15, 2013

      Hi Meera, if you’re writing fiction, I’d change all of the names and also change the physical characteristics of your characters so you have more freedom to play and don’t feel to you have to stick to the reality. If you’re writing a memoir, you can change the names or not…

  4. brandy July 24, 2013

    I used to be a dancer, and I met all sorts in interesting people and had many interesting experiences. I want to write them down, i think it would make kind of a funny novel, some of the things that has happened. But I’m not really sure how to go about it and not make it sound trashy or like a boring journal.

    • Alice Osborn August 1, 2013

      Hi Brandy, thanks so much for commenting at my blog–come back and visit often! As far as writing, I suggest you read memoir, fiction, young adult and join a book club. Meet up with other writers to give you support and take writing classes and read book on writing craft–I have many listed here on my website. And most of all, write every day! Get the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott–the best writing book ever! Alice:)

  5. chereharvey August 23, 2013

    hi alice i want to start writting a book of my husbands and my familys life after he was sent to prison, where his attorney paided off the police to send him there and then he got deported out of the us its a very real tragedy that is happening to so many people and im not sure how to go about it could you please give me some advise . the whole legal justice system was involved in the whole case and even a second attorney couldnt get out of it properly without being sucked into the same situation lease help me to get this story out

    • chereharvey September 10, 2013


      • Alice Osborn September 10, 2013

        thanks for your comments on my website! You sound like you’re ready to tell your story.

        If you don’t live in the Triangle area of NC I can help mentor you and get your memoir or novel ready for publication. My mentoring fees are $120/hr for a 60 min session either by email or phone. I edit your work before we connect.

        My editing fees are $1200 for 200-250 pages, 60-80,000 words and my fees go up if your book is larger.
        Please email me at to get a quicker response!

        thank you again for your interest,

        • chereharvey September 19, 2013

          thank you for your reply and yes when i get some of it done further i will definently be getting in touch with you just one more thing i have the court transcript and that is 500 pages alone do i include all that in the book

          • Alice Osborn September 19, 2013

            Chere, you would include excerpts from the transcripts, but not the entire transcript–you’d bore your reader! You need to take your transcripts and thoughts and make a cohesive narrative out of them that tells your story and goes from beginning, middle and end. A

  6. paige October 30, 2013

    I have been asked for a few years now to wright a book about something that happend to me. i v played a round wrighting in a jurnal know how i want to end the book but not really sher how to start got any tips??

    • Alice Osborn October 30, 2013

      Thank you, Emily, for your comment. I suggest you read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and/or Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg to get you started on your memoir!

  7. Andy Nash February 18, 2015

    I am writing a novel based on my life “true story,real, people, real events” legally can i use real names of people like cops,judges, ect. people of The system? if i have legal documentation to back up what i write am i safe? or can people bring up a cival suit against me? who and what can i “not” put in my book? Thank You

    • Alice Osborn February 18, 2015

      Hi Andy, you can use real names and real people as long as you back it up with documentation. People can only bring a civil suit against you if they can prove their income suffered as a result of readers reading your memoir. My recommendation is to contact a good copyright attorney in your area. Thanks so much for reading my blog! Alice


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