10 Unbelievable Novels Based on True Stories
The saying goes, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” In my own writing, I have told my own true stories because I find them way more fascinating and meainggful than anything I could ever make up!
I enjoy fiction of all kinds, though I’m extra curious about stories that are based on real people who have lived and actual events that have take place.
Fictionalizing true stories is a way to look at things through a different lens. I appreciate getting a glimpse into the emotional lives of characters who have been resigned to pages of facts in history books.
Here are some fascinating novels you may not have known are actually based on actual events and real people!
*Note: I’ve written the descriptions of these books based on general Google searching and the book synopsises on Goodreads.
10 Unbelievable Novels Based on True Stories
Love and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford
Based on: A young boy who was raffled off as a healthy boy to a good home during the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle
This is compelling story about a fascinating time in the world and U.S. history. It follows Ernest, the boy who is the auction prize, on his journey to the U.S, and into his life in a brothel whose owner was the raffle winner.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
Based on: Pino Lella, a 17-year-old Italian boy who led Jews escaping the Nazis over the Alps, and later became a spy inside the German Army.
This is an epic novel, intertwining history with a suspenseful story involving love and courage.
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Based on: Lizzie Borden, who was the main suspect axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in August of 1892, . Borden was tried and acquitted of the murders.
This novel retells one of the most fascinating murder cases in U.S. history into a fascinating story of family.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Based on: The 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. Kinnear’s two servants, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime.
Atwood uses facts from previously published documents on the case and writes a complex historical narrative from Grace’s point of view.
The Good People by Hannah Kent
Based on: An Irish woman named Anne Roche who was tried and acquitted for the death of a young boy by drowning him in a river. The woman’s defense was that she had been trying to banish the fairy out of the boy, implying that they believed him to be a changeling.
This is a fascinating story of three women who come together to rescue a child from a superstitious community.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
Based on: A nanny who murdered two children in her care, in New York City in 2012.
This novel was originally published in French in 2016, then translated into English in 2018 and has become an International Bestseller. It’s a creepy, suspenseful novel at once both engaging and disturbing.
Little Deaths by Emma Flint
Based on: The case of Alice Crimmins, a single mother who woke one morning in 1965 to find her two children ages 4 and 5 missing from their locked bedroom. The children were later found dead.
This literary crime novel explores the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and the consequences of even the smallest of lies.
Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart
Based on: Constance Kopp, one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs.
This is the first in a series of four historical novels that chronicle the life of a daring woman who became a deputy sheriff.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Based on: The author’s experience in Hurricane Katrina.
This is a gut wrenching look at life in a poverty stricken region of America, particularly during crisis.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Based on: Actual events that occurred in the 1980s and is classified as non-fiction. Because it reads like a novel and rearranges the sequence of events in time, it is sometimes referred to as a “non-fiction novel.”
An incredibly engaging story a shooting in Savannah, Georgia with a remarkable cast of characters and a vividly atmospheric setting.
ElizabethNovember 13, 2019 at 7:24 am
An excellent list, Romona. I have read several of these and most others are on my TBR shelves. I would add to the list THE HUNGER by Alma Katsu which takes a supernatural twist to the Donner Party tragedy…although it is not as “horror” as the publisher would like you to believe. It is really an in-depth character study and the brutality of the western frontier.
Ramona MeadNovember 14, 2019 at 5:16 pm
Thanks! The Hunger sounds really interesting, I’ll have to check it out.
TaraDecember 26, 2021 at 5:13 pm
New Years resolution delete social media and read more. The books you listed sound like a great start.
Ramona MeadDecember 30, 2021 at 11:55 am
Thanks Tara, good luck with your resolutions!
KathyFebruary 9, 2022 at 6:37 pm
Re Little Deaths by Emma Flint, the late Mary Higgins Clark’s first bestseller, Where Are the Children, was also inspired by the Crimmins case, according to MHC at a writers conference.
Cyndi WheelerApril 7, 2022 at 4:23 pm
Thanks! Love and Other Consolation Prizes sounds like a great read, and I’ve added it to my wish list. I agree that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an excellent story, and, I thought, well written.
If I could add one to your list, it would be The Ballad of Frankie Silver, by Sharyn McCrumb, another sad, true, and fascinating crime story involving a young bride in 1833 North Carolina. Thanks again for the interesting recommendations!
KateApril 14, 2022 at 3:51 pm
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbelievable
Emily LaPorteMay 9, 2022 at 9:45 am
Great list! I’d also like to recommend a book that I thought was pretty remarkable. 438 Days by Jonathan Franklin that tells the true story of a fisherman who survived 438 days on the ocean . It’s a must read.
EstherMay 16, 2022 at 2:34 pm
Great list! Hope to find the books
MargaretJune 21, 2022 at 9:02 am
So many about murders??? No thanks.
JoAnnJune 27, 2022 at 11:33 am
Like others, I’ve read a number of these and have others on my TBR. Beneath a Scarlet Sky has a particular resonance because I think many are unaware of an Italian resistance. Of course, no list is complete without In Cold Blood.
Ramona MeadJune 27, 2022 at 1:20 pm
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed my list. In Cold Blood is tricky because it’s not a novel (fiction) but more of a non-fiction account. I know it’s up for debate in regards to the accuracy but I don’t consider it a novel so that’s why it isn’t on my list!
PatriciaJuly 6, 2022 at 6:16 pm
Issac’s Storm is a fast paced and addictive account of the hurricane that hit Galveston in the early 20th century. I felt like I was there.
LauraAugust 25, 2022 at 6:19 am
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, is both riveting and inspirational—one of my favorite books in this genre. For those of you who love stories about spies, try A Spy Among Friends, by Ben MacIntyre. This is the fascinating story of Kim Philby, who rose to a prominent position in MI6 while spying for the Soviets. I would also recommend Elephant Company, by Vicki Constantine Croke; Devotion, by Adam Makos; and The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.
MeredithAugust 27, 2022 at 12:34 am
I loved Isaac’s Storm, but it isn’t a novel—it is considered to be non-fiction.
SilJanuary 21, 2023 at 2:53 pm
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan is an amazing book. I enjoyed every line!
Deborah CatriniJanuary 30, 2023 at 4:48 am
Mosquito Bowl ….Hope to see it developed into a screenplay.