Writing About Family Can Be a Tricky Business

Writing about family can be a like walking a tightrope – one slip can lead to a painful fall in the form of upset parents, siblings, etc. I’ve read two New York Times articles that focused mainly on memoirs and family members disputing the author’s recollections of real life events. There’s no question writing about family can be tricky.

I’ve written several short stories about events taking place in my family, mostly as contest entries. I had four brothers, so the wealth of material was nearly endless. This year or early in 2021, I’ll be re-releasing Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace, a novel I wrote under a pen name over 10 years ago. While the story is based on true events, it is fiction. Hearing the outrageous events happening to my family, the inevitable response from people was, “You need to write a book about this.” So I did.

I’ve come up with a list of things to consider when contemplating writing about family, whether it be true such as a memoir, a mixture of the two, or fiction that is inspired by real life events. These are simply my observations and your experiences may be entirely different.

  • Accept that your family may not be absolutely thrilled about seeing personal trials in print/online. There is always the option of not telling family you’re writing about them. Or, consider using a pen name to protect their privacy.
  • If specific individuals are known for taking legal action (as was the concern with my earlier book), authors should consider changing defining characteristics – names, physical attributes, locations, etc. Authors do this all the time without compromising the story. You may also choose to wait until the person in question is deceased.
  • You have a right to tell your story. Both articles discussed authors wanting to relay extremely unpleasant issues that occurred within their families. But authors also need to be cautious about telling a story with malicious intent (deliberately writing something that is defamatory or slanderous).
  • Let your family read the first draft. There are pros and cons to taking that approach, as the New York Times article, Great Draft, Dad. I Have Some Notes, indicates. Ultimately, the question is how much input should your family have?

In the end, I choose to write Shades of Darkness, Shades of Grace simply because it was a good story worth telling. Excellent word-of-mouth and passage of time with a universal message convinced me to plan a re-release, but this time using my real name.

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