Factual Fictions

A guest blog by Jenny LeCoat

In these digital days, researching the past is more straightforward than it’s ever been. But history is far more than documented events, or columns of names on a ledger. We have to learn to interpret the facts and consider human motives if we want to achieve real understanding.

Of course, interpretation is a dangerous business. It brings our own personalities and prejudices into the equation, and some would argue that it damages the truth. But what is the truth? Five witnesses to the same crime invariably disagree about what they saw, and every history book is the work of an individual, each with his or her own ideas. Our entire received history is polluted with biases, ulterior motives and influences of all kinds, whether we’re talking about a family in Beckenham or the Napoleonic wars.

In the last ten years I have written three screenplays based on true events. In each one, I tried to get underneath the facts and get to know the people I was writing about, to understand not just what happened to them, but why. One of those scripts was “Diana: Last Days of a Princess”, a documentary-drama on the events of summer 1997. As the most famous woman in the world, it was easy enough to establish facts about Diana – where she was on any given day, the people she spoke to, even the content of her conversations. But figuring out why she chose to attach herself to the Al Fayed family, why she formed a relationship with Dodi, and why she made many of the key decisions that led her to Paris and that fateful car journey, became the real challenge. For me, the answers lay in the emotional patterns of her difficult childhood, and the role that men had played in her life. A grasp of basic psychology is probably the historical writer’s most useful tool.

More recently I had to come to understand my own great-aunt, Louisa Gould, in order to write “Another Mother’s Son”. The film, released in March 2017, is about her choice to shelter a young Russian slave worker in occupied Jersey during World War II, for which she paid the ultimate price. At first it seemed a straightforward story; following the death of her own son, Louisa felt the need to help another vulnerable young man, and after almost two years of caring for him, felt a natural maternal bond. But why was she so naive about security in the face of clear and evident risk, and why was she so arrogant towards the Germans, who she considered too stupid to pose any real threat? Piecing the facts together, I concluded that it was her admiration for her younger brother who encouraged these lax attitudes, coupled with an innate family bolshiness towards authority. Did I get the interpretation right? No one will ever know for sure. But without some kind of character analysis, it would have been a documentary, not a movie, and certainly wouldn’t have achieved the publicity it did, or reached as wide an audience.

Writers have an obligation to uncover the truth, but sometimes a little personal evaluation can make the difference between a series of events and a real, human story to which we can all relate. Perhaps that is what George Bernard Shaw meant when he said: “It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive.”

Jenny LeCoat is a screenwriter and Family History Films contributor, whose recent film 'Another Mother's Son' is now widely available.