Ten Novels With Characters Based on Real People

true stories

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is focused on books with characters who __. I’m filling in that blank with characters based on real people, so you get a dose of historical fiction…the good kind.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

San Francisco, smallpox, burlesque, frog catching and an unsolved murder tumble together in this true tale.

What is Visible by Kimberly Elkins

The beautifully written true story of Laura Bridgman, a deaf-blind woman who captured the nation’s attention years before Helen Keller.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

Following the death of their only son, a husband and wife act quietly to resist Nazi control in WWII Berlin.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Iceland’s dark, cold atmosphere runs deep in this true story of a woman accused of murder in 1829.

Euphoria by Lily King

Loosely based on the life of Margaret Mead, King’s novel examines the passions of three anthropologists.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Not just one, but a collection of true stories based on the lives of real, fascinating women.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The story of a young boy who joins John Brown’s abolitionist raid, told in a way you’ve never heard before.

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

Written in first person plural, the collective stories of the women behind the atomic bomb.

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

A novel that follows the imagined life of the woman shown in Dorthea Lange’s infamous Migrant Mother photograph.

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

The story of Hemingway’s wives, told from their perspectives in four consecutive parts.


What are your favorite novels with characters based on real people?


  • Interesting topic choice for this week – I like it! I have The Wives of Los Alamos on my TBR list, mostly because I have family in that town, and I’ve become interested in its history through visiting them.

  • I really enjoy reading books that feature real people! I will definitely have to look some of these up! Great list!

  • Interesting list, thanks for sharing.

  • Eleanor Baggley

    Oh dear, my wish list just got a lot longer!

  • I could think of lots for this category, but one that I just read is Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth, which is centered around a woman in the court of Versailles who wrote a version of the story we know as Rapunzel. She’s a fascinating character.

  • Ohh – what an awesome category! I love these types of books and have Los Alamos on my TBR. May have to add Mrs. Hemingway. A couple others I’ve loved are The Paris Wife, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress, and Greg Iles’ Natchez Burning series.

    • I’m not big on all the “wife” books, but the writing in Mrs. Hemingway is incredible. Highly, highly recommended.

  • I love this list! A few good Canadian picks I’ve recently read are A Measure of Light by Beth Powning (Mary Dyer), All True Not A Lie In It by Alix Hawley (Daniel Boone), Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Leon Theremin), and The Confabulist by Steven Gallway (Houdini).

    • Oooo, thanks for giving me more from the North! I definitely have Us Conductors on my list already (thanks to you!).

  • Lindsey Stefan

    Love this list! I can’t resist good historical fiction, although I always caution my brain that it might not or probably didn’t happen just this way. I’m hoping to read Mary Coin and Burial Rites this year!

    • That’s some wise caution! Especially Mary Coin, which is pretty much all fabricated…it has some great inspiration, though.

  • Kay

    Oh, you chose well. I have not read any of these books, but several of them are on my wishlist. I’m also looking forward to Circling the Sun, out in July, about Beryl Markham and the Out of Africa people. I have really wanted to read Burial Rites.

  • Wow, this is such a great list! I had no idea that ALL of these titles included characters based on real people; thanks for sharing! I keep meaning to read Euphoria…

  • Amanda

    Thanks for adding to my TBR again! I have been wanting to read Frog Music – I disliked Room but it was so well written that I expected that one to be good as well.

  • Jennine G.

    Love these kinds of books! Mary Coin is on my shelf and I plan on reading it before summer ends!

  • Oh, Mary Renault’s Alexander books, for sure. I don’t want to say they’ll ALWAYS be my favorite books about real people — that kind of blanket pronunciation seems hubris-y — but I can at least say that they have been my favorites for upwards of fifteen years, with no close challengers.

  • So many good books! I’ll throw Alias Grace and The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell into the mix.

  • Several of these were already on my tbr list, but I might have to add the rest of them to.

  • I have Almost Famous Women and am really looking forward to getting to it. I love learning about people who were a little more unknown. The Wives of Los Alamos has been on my TBR but now I must add Mrs. Hemingway. Great topic!

  • Jenna

    We have the same theme! Naturally I had trouble with mine and picked some duplicates from authors (three Shakespeare, three Philippa Gregory), but I’m finishing Wolf Hall so I was inspired. I’ve only read Burial Rites from this list, and it’s on my list as well. :)

  • I think Euphoria looks right up my alley. I’m drawing a blank on some of my favorites. But I agree with others that Alias Grace is a good one.

  • Thank you for the great list. I have had Burial Rites in my ereader for a long while. Mrs. Hemingway is on my library TBR.

  • Beth

    Great topic Shannon! As usual, your post has added some books to my TBR! I gave Frog Music a shot but ended up DNF’ing it–couldn’t get into it. I got Burial Rites in the bargain section of my bookstore after hearing about it on BookTube. That you’ve added it to a best list makes me even more excited to get to it :)

  • Ooh, I like this fill-in-the blank!

  • Burial Rites!! I should really read The Wives of Los Alamos. Sounds pretty interesting. I had to hold it once when I was modeling as a “girl reading” (easy) but I didn’t know what it was!

    • Hahaha, I feel like there needs to be a post about this modeling gig.

      • Haha, it’s not that interesting. I’m not good at it. I don’t know what to do with my face or body in real life, so adding a camera to the situation is bad news.

  • You come up with the best titles! I’ve only read Frog Music from this list and although I liked it, I didn’t LOVE it. The other title on this list I most definitely want to read is Burial Rites.