Top Picks: Fiction Based on True Stories

Living through strange times always gives me an appreciation for those stories that seem far-fetched, but actually turn out to be entirely plausible given how weird and unexpected life can be. If you're looking for a book that makes you exclaim, "What a world!?!" then have I got some picks for you.

Why is it always the tiger trainers? The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is a novelized version of the life of a 1920s Barnum and Bailey circus superstar. Eccentric fashion, multiple marriages, an intense connection with her striped co-performers and a never-ending stream of scandal and hardship—sound familiar? If an interesting life is measured in the scars we retain from it, the real-life Mabel Stark boasted 533 stitches. It's a story of resilience or insanity, or maybe both depending on how you read it.

Delius as I Knew Him is the true story that served as the inspiration behind a section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. In both stories, a young, unknown composer seeks out an aging master of classical music afflicted and bedridden by disease. If you’re a fan of music, don’t miss this unique exploration of youth, collaboration and the creative process behind great art. If you’re feeling particularly inspired, you can also listen to Delius' Orchestral works for the full experience.


Many people were forced to read Moby-Dick at some point in their life, and if you found that it included entirely too many whale facts, well, you’re in luck! Melville’s novel was based on a true story told in In the Heart of the Sea, which focuses much more on the adventure of the sailors, their run-in with a crazed sperm whale, and their fight for survival on the high seas. The truth of this nautical journey is actually crazier than anyone could write it.

Girl Waits With Gun is a fictionalized version of a historical figure who truly needs no embellishment. In 1914, a woman named Constance Kopp refused to be intimidated by a group of wealthy criminals and eventually made history by busting the culprits with the help of her sisters. Local law enforcement was so impressed with her handling of the situation that she went on to become the first female deputy sheriff in the United States.

My last recommendation isn't exactly based on a true story, but I find it an interesting example of fiction coming to life. Rainbow Rowell wrote an amazing novel for teens called Fangirl, which tells the story of struggling writer Cath, who writes a Harry Potter-type fan fiction featuring a romance between the two male lead characters. The small segment of the novel was so popular that Rowell decided to give the tale its own standalone book, Carry on. You'll enjoy Rowell's excellent handling of this complex relationship—and the fact that this is fictionalized fan-fic of another novel.

Have you read any true stories that were almost too fantastic to believe? Let me know in the comments.

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